Animal Epithelial Tissues


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Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The tissues of multicellular, complex animals are four primary types: epithelial, connective, muscle, and nervous. Recall that tissues are groups of similar cells (cells carrying out related functions). These tissues combine to form organs—like the skin or kidney—that have specific, specialized functions within the body. Organs are organized into organ systems to perform functions; examples include the circulatory system, which consists of the heart and blood vessels, and the digestive system, consisting of several organs, including the stomach, intestines, liver, and pancreas. Organ systems come together to create an entire organism.

Epithelial Tissues

Epithelial tissues cover the outside of organs and structures in the body and line the lumens of organs in a single layer or multiple layers of cells. The types of epithelia are classified by the shapes of cells present and the number of layers of cells. Epithelia composed of a single layer of cells is called simple epithelia; epithelial tissue composed of multiple layers is called stratified epithelia. 

Squamous Epithelia

Squamous epithelial cells are generally round, flat, and have a small, centrally located nucleus. The cell outline is slightly irregular, and cells fit together to form a covering or lining. When the cells are arranged in a single layer (simple epithelia), they facilitate diffusion in tissues, such as the areas of gas exchange in the lungs and the exchange of nutrients and waste at blood capillaries.

Illustration A shows irregularly shaped cells with a central nucleus. Micrograph B shows a cross section of squamous cells from the human cervix. In the upper layer the cells appear to be tightly packed. In they middle layer they appear to be more loosely packed, and in the lower layer they are flatter and elongated.
Squamous epithelia cells (a) have a slightly irregular shape, and a small, centrally located nucleus. These cells can be stratified into layers, as in (b) this human cervix specimen. (credit b: modification of work by Ed Uthman; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Cuboidal Epithelia

Cuboidal epithelial cells are cube-shaped with a single, central nucleus. They are most commonly found in a single layer representing a simple epithelia in glandular tissues throughout the body where they prepare and secrete glandular material. They are also found in the walls of tubules and in the ducts of the kidney and liver.

Illustration shows cells, shaped like slices of pie, arranged in a circle. The hub of the circle is empty. Three of these circles of cells cluster together.
Simple cuboidal epithelial cells line tubules in the mammalian kidney, where they are involved in filtering the blood. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e
Columnar Epithelia

Columnar epithelial cells are taller than they are wide: they resemble a stack of columns in an epithelial layer, and are most commonly found in a single-layer arrangement. The nuclei of columnar epithelial cells in the digestive tract appear to be lined up at the base of the cells. These cells absorb material from the lumen of the digestive tract and prepare it for entry into the body through the circulatory and lymphatic systems.

Illustration shows tall, columnar cells arranged side-by-side. Each cell has a nucleus located near the bottom, and cilia extending from the top. Two oval goblet cells are interspersed among the columnar epithelial cells. The goblet cells, which are shorter than the columnar cells, are in direct contact with the intestinal lumen. Beneath the columnar cells is a layer of horizontal cells.
Simple columnar epithelial cells absorb material from the digestive tract. Goblet cells secrete mucus into the digestive tract lumen. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Columnar epithelial cells lining the respiratory tract appear to be stratified. However, each cell is attached to the base membrane of the tissue and, therefore, they are simple tissues. The nuclei are arranged at different levels in the layer of cells, making it appear as though there is more than one layer. This is called pseudostratified, columnar epithelia. This cellular covering has cilia at the apical, or free, surface of the cells. The cilia enhance the movement of mucus and trapped particles out of the respiratory tract, helping to protect the system from invasive microorganisms and harmful material that has been breathed into the body. Goblet cells are interspersed in some tissues (such as the lining of the trachea). The goblet cells contain mucus that traps irritants, which in the case of the trachea keep these irritants from getting into the lungs.

Illustration shows columnar cells arranged side-by-side. The cells are wide at the top, and thin at the bottom. Shorter columnar cells are interspersed between the lower, thin part of the tall columnar cells. Some of these cells extend to the surface of the epithelium, but they are very thin at the top. The nuclei of the tall columnar cells are located near the top, and the nuclei of the shorter columnar cells are located near the bottom, giving the appearance of two layers of cells. Cilia extend from the top of the tall columnar cells. Oval goblet cells are interspersed among the columnar epithelial cells. Beneath the columnar cells is a layer of horizontal cells.
Pseudostratified columnar epithelia line the respiratory tract. They exist in one layer, but the arrangement of nuclei at different levels makes it appear that there is more than one layer. Goblet cells interspersed between the columnar epithelial cells secrete mucus into the respiratory tract. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e
Transitional Epithelia

Transitional or uroepithelial cells appear only in the urinary system, primarily in the bladder and ureter. These cells are arranged in a stratified layer, but they have the capability of appearing to pile up on top of each other in a relaxed, empty bladder. As the urinary bladder fills, the epithelial layer unfolds and expands to hold the volume of urine introduced into it. As the bladder fills, it expands and the lining becomes thinner. In other words, the tissue transitions from thick to thin.

Illustration shows tall, diamond-shaped cells layered one on top of the other.
Transitional epithelia of the urinary bladder undergo changes in thickness depending on how full the bladder is. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: