By Ed Yong
It’s early morning in the Australian desert, and a squat, palm-sized lizard called the thorny devil is having a drink. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and there’s no water in sight. The lizard’s body is still and its head is raised. And yet, through almost no effort, it is quenching its thirst.Its secret lies in its extraordinary skin. Between the intimidating and ostentatious spikes, there’s a subtle network of microscopic grooves. These can yank water out of moist sand, drawing the fluid up against the pull of gravity, across the lizard’s body, and into its waiting mouth. All it needs to do is to stand in the right spot and without flexing a muscle, it can drink with its skin.
Though long known to Aboriginal Australians, the lizard was first described by Western zoologists in 1841. Its fearsome appearance earned it sinister names—the thorny devil, or Moloch horridus. In truth, the creature eats only ants, and otherwise moves slowly and placidly. “They’re like Swiss people—very relaxed,” says Philippe Comanns, from RWTH Aachen University.
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