By: Charles Choi, LiveScience Contributor
Published: 09/26/2012 01:14 PM EDT on LiveScience

A mouse that escapes predators by shedding patches of its skin may shed light on regeneration and could lead to research that one day helps people heal from wounds and disease, scientists say.

Humans and other mammals are generally very limited when it comes to regeneration, but one mammal, the African spiny mouse, can heal wounds much faster than lab mice can, which drew the attention of Ashley Seifert, a regeneration biologist at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

"Mammals have no problem regenerating blood cells or epidermis, or regrowing hair that is plucked out," Seifert said, "but following injury, like the severing of a finger, mammals generally just seal off the wound site and produce scar tissue.

"Compare that to salamanders, who can regenerate entire pieces of tissue on the sides of their bodies, not to mention arms, legs and their brain," Seifert told LiveScience.

Furthermore, in mammals, "in general, the ability to regenerate also declines with age," Seifert said. "Newborn humans can actually regenerate a very small piece of the fingertip, but this ability is lost during childhood development."

Given the general limits of mammals when it comes to regeneration, Seifert was fascinated by tales of the African spiny mouse. While vigorous movement could peel off up to 60 percent of the skin off the backs of these rodents, they could quickly heal these wounds and regrow spiny hairs that covered the lost skin. [10 Amazing Animal Abilities]

Seifert clarified these rodents do not regrow all their lost skin. "They use contraction to constrict the wound site so they don't actually have to regenerate much tissue at all," he explained. "It is the central portion of this wound, the remaining 5 percent, that they regenerate."

To learn more about how these rodents accomplish such regeneration, Seifert and his colleagues investigated live specimens of two species of African spiny mouse (Acomys kempi and Acomys percivali) captured over the course of three years from rocky outcroppings in central Kenya.

Analysis of spiny mouse skin revealed it was 20 times weaker than the skin of lab mice, requiring 77 times less energy to tear. This breakaway skin likely helps spiny mice escape the clutches of predators such as snakes, owls and eagles, Seifert said.

When the researchers cut small wounds in the skin of these rodents, new layers of tissue that would later go on to become skin grew quickly over the injured areas, covering wounds 0.2 inches (4 millimeters) across after three days, compared with the five to seven days it took lab mice to do the same. Damaged ears with holes punched in them even regenerated hair follicles and cartilage without scarring.

"The fact that these mice can regenerate such large ear holes — 4 millimeters — is surprising to me," Seifert said.

Healing wounds in spiny mice apparently deposit collagen fibers that form scars far more slowly and in lower abundances than in lab mice. Wounded ears also grew masses of cells similar to blastemas, transient structures used by animals such as salamander to rebuild missing tissues. "It is thought that one of the main constraints on regenerating appendages in humans ? or other mammals, for that fact ?is the failure to form a blastema," Seifert said.

These findings suggest that mammals might retain a higher capacity for regeneration than is believed. Seifert now wants to figure out what molecular mechanisms these spiny mice use to instruct blastema-like structures to form.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Sept. 27 issue of the journal Nature.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Strongest Animal

    The Atlas beetle (pictured) can push around 850 times its weight.

  • Largest Invertebrate (Land)

    The coconut crab weighs about 6.6 pounds and its legs can span up to two and a half feet Liz Hall from the Melbourne Aquarium inspects Coconut Crab as he takes possesion of a coconut in Melbourne, 19 December 2006. They Coconut crab (also known as the Robber Crab) are the largest living crab in the world and can climb coconut trees to harvest coconuts which they can break with their huge nippers and have been gruesomely know to feed on injured or unconcious people in the bush. (William West, AFP / Getty Images)

  • The giant squid is the world's largest invertebrate, and the largest ever measured was 59 feet long. Giant squids also have the largest eyes of any animal, each one about the size of a human head.

  • Smallest Mammal

    The etruscan shrew is the smallest mammal (by weight) in the world. The smallest animal by skull size is the bumblebee bat.

  • Most Venomous Animal

    The sea wasp jellyfish (pictured) has enough venom to kill 60 adult humans. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/65578066@N00" target="_hplink">Guido Gautsch/Flickr</a>

  • Longest Migration

    Arctic terns migrate about 11,000 miles to the Antarctic each year...and then come all the way back! An Arctic Tern dives down to protect its nest on June 24, 2011 on Inner Farne, England. (Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)

  • Loudest Animal

    Blue whales' low-frequency pulses can be heard over 500 miles way. At 188 decibels, these sounds are louder than a jet engine. In this picture taken on March 26, 2009, shows a blue whale swimming in the deep waters off the southern Sri Lankan town of Mirissa. (Ishara S. Kodikara, AFP / Getty Images)

  • World's Most Extreme Animals

    North African ostriches run up to 45 miles an hour, making them the fastest land bird. They are also the biggest, weighing up to 345 pounds. An african ostrich eats at the Addo National Elephant Park, north of Port Elizabeth, on June 24, 2010. South Africa is hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. (Patrick Hertzog, AFP / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Bird

    Peregrine falcons dive toward their prey at over 200 mph. A young male Peregrine Falcon eats meat taken from the protective glove of Taronga Zoo bird trainer Erin Stone (unseen) following a short flying lesson in Sydney on December 9, 2009. (Greg Wood, AFP / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Fish

    Sailfish can swim at speeds of up to 68 mph, although experts disagree as to just which species of sailfish is the fastest. Sailfish jumping out of the water on January 16, 2006 in the Florida Keys, Florida. (Ronald C. Modra, Sports Imagery / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Mammal

    Cheetahs can run at speeds up to 70 mph. Majani, a 2-year-old male African cheetah, exhibits lighting speed Friday, March 19, 2004 while chasing a mechanical rabbit at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park as part of the Park's environmental enrichment program. (Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo / AP)

  • Longest Lifespan

    Three giant tortoises are estimated to have lived over 175 years, with one estimated at a whopping 255 years. Image: Harriet, who died in 2006, was thought to be the third longest-lived tortoise on record. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/123660557/" target="_hplink">Cory Doctorow/Creative Commons</a>

  • World's Most Extreme Animals

    African elephants are the heaviest and second tallest land animals. Large males can exceed 13,000 pounds and are 12 feet tall at the shoulder. This photo made on February 10, 2011 shows an elephant in Tsavo west national park, some 350 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. (Tony Karumba, AFP / Getty Images)