Arxiu d'etiquetes: melanin

White, brown or red?

For many people summer is synonymous of beach and tan. But there are people who are not tan during winter. Some people prefer to use UVA tanning booths a few months before, and others take the sun without protection to catch some colour. What consequences can this have? Then I will talk about the skin and the effect of radiation on it.


The skin is the largest organ of our body, has an area between 1.5 and 2m2 of surface and a weight around 3.5-5kg. Their functions are:

  • Protection: protects the internal organs from trauma and prevents the loss of water and electrolytes from the inside.
  • Thermoregulation: the blood vessels increase or decrease the temperature of the skin. When it is very hot the sweat refreshes the skin surface.
  • Sensitivity: the perception of touch, pressure, temperature, pain and itching is done through the skin.
  • Secretion: the skin protects the body from dehydration.
  • Excretion: through the skin we eliminate about 350ml per day of water, which we have to recover by moisturizing. In certain diseases you can get rid of a lot of protein and sulfur.

The skin has two basic cells: keratinocytes (80%) and melanocytes (10%). The melanin, which gives the tan, is found inside the melanocytes and accumulates in some bags (melanosomes). When it does not touch the light it remains in deep strata, whereas when it touches the sun goes up by the keratinocytes (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Melanin (arrows) rising towards the keratinocytes (Source: Salud del Siglo XXI)

Tan is the synthesis of new melanin. Not all people produce the same amount of melanin. We all have the same number of melanocytes, but the difference is in the number of melanosomes.

Our skin is formed by 3 layers that are, ordered from superior to inferior, epidermis, dermis and hypodermis (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Skin layers: A) epidermis, B) dermis and C) hypodermis (Source: MedlinePlus)

The tanning process passes into epidermis, which is the top layer of the skin. Epidermis is 0.2mm thick and subdivided into 4 or 5 layers, depending on the body part. For example, the palms of the hands and soles of the feet are formed by 5 layers, where the extra layer gives more resistance. The thickness of the skin in these areas is 1-2mm, in contrast, in other areas, as in the eyelids, is lower (0.004mm). In the inner or deep layers, the cells are younger and more active, and along the cycle, they ascend to the outer or superficial area, becoming dead cells, without nucli and formed basically by keratin (dead skin).

Below, there is dermis that gives elasticity to the skin, where you find the nerves and blood vessels and is where the hairs and nails grow. Finally, hypodermis is below everything and is where the glands are.


The sun emits radiation with wavelengths ranging from 0.1 to 17,000nm. But only the radiations between 280 and 3,000nm arrive to the Earth (the others remain in the ozone layer).

Radiation that affects living organisms involves spectrum of 280-800nm (UVB, UVA, visible light and a part of infrared) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Electromagnetic spectrum (Source: J. E. Martin Cordero. Agentes Físicos Terapéuticos (2009))

Not all radiation penetrates in the same way on our skin. Table 1 shows the level of penetration:

Table 1. Penetration according to the different radiation.



Level of penetration










Visible light




Infrared IR >700nm


It is important to know that prolonged exposure, without taking precautions, can not only produce skin cancer, but can also have other effects. UVB radiation is the most common cause of sunburn, erythema or redness. It is also the most common cause of skin cancer. In contrast, UVA radiation rarely causes burns, but is responsible for most photosensitization (abnormal increase in skin sensitivity to UV radiation) and may be carcinogenic in the presence of certain substances that enhance its effect. In addition, it causes aging of the skin (Figure 4).

In tanning booths 30% of the radiation is UV. Mostly it is UVA radiation, but there is also UVB radiation (albeit to a lesser extent). The remaining percentage is infrared radiation and visible light.

Figure 4. UVA (aging) and UVB radiation (burns) effects (Source:

The amount of irradiation is greater when the more near is the Earth of the Sun (zone of the Equator, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, or between 12 and 16 hours). This irradiation can damage our DNA, causing breaks in the DNA strand that can cause mutations.

UV rays easily pass through clouds and water vapor, but are partially absorbed by atmospheric pollution. It has been seen that in areas where there are holes in the ozone layer the incidence of skin cancer is higher. This is because the damage caused in the ozone layer allows the passage of more amount of UVB rays. Here the importance of not damaging the ozone layer, as it protects us from these rays.


Since the light can be reflected by several substances, it is necessary to take into account that, to direct rays of the sun, can be added those that arrive tangentially on a bright day and that are reflected by sand, water, soil, gel, snow…

Radiation doses are cumulative and may add to the effects of ionizing radiation (X-rays). The presence of skin cancer can be observed many years after an acute burn. This has been observed in American sailors who were in the Pacific during World War II, and who were exposed for months or years to high intensity solar radiation. These sailors have developed over the years different types of skin cancer.

For this reason it is very important to take the correct sun protection measures: use photoprotectors, avoid long periods in the sun, especially in hours of maximum solar intensity; and moisturize often.



Full colour: Birds and their plumage

The most beautiful characteristic of birds is their different colour patterns between species, genders, ages, and even in individuals. In this post, we will discover some ecological and behavioural factors involved in the variability of colour in different individuals and how they are perceived by the bird eye.


Different colours of the bird plumage are determinated by the combination of the amount of pigments (melanin and carotene) in feathers, and the specific microestructure in some parts of the feather.

Some pigments, as melanin (eumelanin for black and grey, pheomelanin for brown and beige) are synthesized by birds. There are specific pigments of particular taxa, for example the pigment synthesized by the psittacidae family  (it includes macaws, parakeets and other from Africa and America).

Macaws –

Other substances, as carotenoids, are assimilated with food. For example, flamingos and roseate spoonbills find this pigments in small crustaceans that they eat. Thus, colours depend on habitat and season.

Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) –

Also colours that depend on this pigments, birds have structural colours. On bird feathers can appear an effect, called “dissemination of Rayleigh“,  when rays of light hit the melanin microgranules that reflect short waves (blue) and transmit long waves.

Structure of feather barb –

In some birds, as balb ibis (Geronticus eremita), iridescense is showed under certain lighting conditions with purple and blue colours. This effect is the result of the light incidence in microleaf of the feathers: melanin absorbs light and determines the black colour, and the colours of rainbow are reflected by this microleafs, when microgranules could only reflect the blue colour.

Iridescense in bald ibis (Genonticus eremita) –


Visual system of birds have anatomical differences to humans system. We are able to see in visible spectrum because we have three cone receptors in our eyes that divide light into three different spectral ranges (blue, red and green). Birds have four cone receptors and also they are able to see the ultraviolet radation.

Wavelenghts in birds and humans –
On the left human vision and on the right ultraviolet vision in birds –

In addition, birds have special oils on the surface of the cones that improve the colour vision enabling the perception of a colorful world.


Plumage colour helps to distinguish different species, between male and female in birds with sexually dimorphic, aged, and can be different between individuals of the same species. But also, in same species,  this variety is related with ecological and ethological factors.

Some studies point out colour is key indicator of birds’ health status and could be important in mate choise. In many species, females prefer to breed with brigher colour males. These preferences are due to brigher colour males show higher quality and a greater capacity to survive. The carotenoids that influence in plumage colour must be supplied by the diet, but also are involved in other vital processes such as inmune process, precursors of vitamins and control of oxidative stress. According this theory, colour is a good indicator of the state of bird health, because if an individual uses carotenoids in plumage colour other vital processes must be covered and this individual has a good health. In a research about mate choise in blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) was demonstrated that in brigher colour males the probability of selection is higher and their chicks grow best.

Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – Foto: Luis Ojembarrena

On other hand, there is some species with a cryptic plumage that makes observation hard. This kind of plumage is essential in species with high rate of predation because in this way the bird can mingle with the environment and the probability of predation decreases, specially during certain sensitive periods such us females hatching or chicks. An example of cryptic plumage is the nighthawk (Caprimulgus europaeus) that uses its plumage to dissaper in waffle when female is hatching to decrease the risk of predation.

Nighthaw (Caprimulgus europaeus) hatching – Foto: Victor Guimera


Some individuals can have anomalies in their plumages due to influence of factors such us genetic variability, environmental pressures and diet. Some of the most common include:

  • Albinism: It consists on the precense of white feather rather than the usual feather due to a genetic change that inhibits the formation of tyrosinase enzyme responsible for the synthesis of the melanin. It is fully expressed when colour feather, soft parts (beak, claws, nails) and eyes reduce melanina.
  • Leucism: It is characterized by reduced pigmentation. A genetic mutation prevents melanin deposited in feathers properly.
Bird with albinism has changes in its anatomy  (colour of eyes, for example), and in leucism the bird only has decreased pigment –
  •  Melanism: It is a development of the dark colored pigment melanim in the feathers. It can ocurr partially, with dark marks, or completely if all plumage becames dark.

Negative factors for quality of habitats have shown to have influence in colour birds. In this way, it is possible to study colour patterns in birds to relate them with the state of a population and to promote conservation measures. This methodology will be cheaper and gives us highly valuable information.

Rural and urban birds – P.Salmon


  • J. Carranza, J. Moreno y M.Soler. “Researches about animal behaviour”. XXV años de la Sociedad Española de Etología (1984-2009)”. Universidad de Extremadura
  • P. Salmón, J.F. Nilsson, A.Nord, S.Bensch, C.Isaksson. “Urban environment shortens telomere length in nestling great tits, Parus major”. The Royal Society Publishing.
  • James Dale, Cody J. Dey, Kaspar Delhey, Bart Kempenaers y Mihai Valcu. “The effects of life history and sexual selection on male and female plumage colouration”. doi:10.1038/nature15509.
  • Cover photo:

Sara de la Rosa Ruiz

Albinism in cetaceans

This publication talk about albinism in cetaceans and give some examples about it.


Albinism is a group of inherited conditions resulting in little or no pigment (hypopigmentation) in the eyes or in the eyes, skin and hair. Mammals’ pigmentation depends on the presence or absence of melanin in the skin, hair and eyes. Melanin is produced by amino acid tyrosine thanks to enzyme tyrosinase, whose alteration cause albinism. The other case is the overproduction, known as melanism, and the result is overly dark animals.


Albino marine mammals have been reported for 21 cetacean species (Fertl et al. 1999; Ferlt et al. 2004) and 7 pinniped species (Rodriguez & Bastida, 1993; Bried & Haubreux, 2000). Some cetacean species are sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and killer whales (Orcinus orca).

Chédiak-Higashi Syndorme is a type of albinism that consists on diluted pigmentantion patterns that appear pale gray eye, white blood cell abnormalities and a shortened life span. It was detected on Chimo, a female killer whale (picture).

Chimo, an albino killer whale (Picture: Orcinus orca).

Albinism means some associated problems to marine mammals: it reduces the heat absorption in colder waters, it eases the detection for depredators, it increases the eye and skin sensibility to sunlight and it reduces the visual communication.


  • FERTL, D; PUSSER, L. T.; & LONG, J. J. (1999) First record of an albino bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) in the Gulf of Mexico, with a review of anomalously white cetaceans. Mar. Mamm. Sci. 15, 227-23
  • PERRIN, W. F.; WÜRSIG, B; THEWISSEN, J. G. M. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Ed. Academic Press, 2ª edició)