More than 80 percent of the animal species are equipped with a hard, outer covering called an exoskeleton. The functions of exoskeletons are similar to those of other types of skeletal systems. Like the internal skeletons (endoskeletons) of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, exoskeletons support the tissues and give shape to the bodies of invertebrates. Exoskeletons offer some other advantages. Serving as a suit of armor, they are excellent protection against predators. Also, because they completely cover an animal’s tissues, exoskeletons prevent them from drying out. In addition, exoskeletons serve as points of attachment for muscles, providing animals with more leverage and mechanical advantage than an endoskeleton can offer. That is why a tiny shrimp can cut a fish in half with its claw or lift an object 50 times heavier than its own body.
Despite all their good points, exoskeletons have some drawbacks. They are heavy, so the only animals that have been successful with them over time are those that have remained small. In addition, an animal must molt, or shed, its exoskeleton to grow. During and immediately after a molt, an animal is unprotected and vulnerable to predators.
|A blue crab sheds its old shell so that it can grow; for a few days after, the|
crab is vulnerable to predators. (Courtesy Mary Hollinger, NODC biologist, NOAA)