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In this world, elves developed along similar lines of homo sapiens, with some major differences that allow for a small metamorphic ability. Their epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, can be shaped and molded to fit circumstances. It can change color, become thicker or skinnier as needed, made to create designs, take on textures or mimic certain marerial, etc.

This eliminates the need of clothing in society, as their skin can be used to take its place. If it is cold or rainy, it can become thicker and heavier, taking a coat-like shape and allowing for warmth. If is it sunny and hot, a certain portion of skin can turn into light clothing and even make logos, similar to our company labels. Even pockets can be created as needed. These can be done simply by will, allowing for remarkable degree of flexibility that is limited only by a person' imagination.

How can I design this race's biology to allow for this ability?

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    $\begingroup$ I hope the region inhabited by those elves is warm enough, otherwise it may be impossible for their digestive system to process all the food they'd need to maintain their body temperature. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Sep 27 '19 at 13:22
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Fair warning: This answer is a real stretch, but if you squint hard I think it'll work for you.

Borrowing From Others

All of the traits from your question do exist in animals already; however, they are spread out over a few different species. Between three animals, I think we can amalgamate an Elf that suits your needs, mostly.

Puff Puff

The puffer fish is well known for its ability to expand on demand. Generally, when a puffer fish is scared, it pushes water into its stomach, which unfolds into the cavities of its body until it's a tight, round ball of spines. The skin of the fish is made up of collagen fibers, which allow for an expansion of up to 40%. Also, puffer fish are known to suck in air as well as water to the same affect. All of this is useful for us, because we want a skin structure that can expend and contract at will.

Imagine a humanoid with tiny bags of collagen-constructed flesh all over its body that have biological "ducting" of some kind running to each one. At will, your Elf could inflate some or all of these little bags with air or other fluid to whatever degree you desire. I would suggest air here, for several reasons: 1) Air has insulating qualities, which might address Adrian's comment about temperature, since an Elf wrapped in pockets of air would be able to stay warm, similar to wearing a coat. 2) Moving that much blood would be very taxing, and it is not as available as air 3)Water would be heavy to carry that much around, and also less available than air.

Air provides a bonus that it's feasible your Elves could float really well in water, and cushion a long fall.

Chamo

Chameleons are covered in cells called chromatophores that respond to signals from the brain and bloodstream. These cells respond by shifting color. They typically only have four colors to work with - yellow, red, blue, and brown - but, like LEDs, if you have those colors display together in different mixes you'll get other colors, like red, orange, etc.

How this applies to the Elf is obvious. What is less obvious is that we have the expanding skin to deal with as well, and it wouldn't really be feasible to have the chromatophores on top of the skin that expands. Rather, it would be biologically easier for the color cells to be in the tiny spaces between sacs. You did specify that they would only generate colors when the temperature is warm, which solves the problem. When the sacs aren't inflated, you could clearly see the colors, but when they are it would be much harder if not impossible. Or you could have the chromatophores on the sacs, but this way you have the choice if you need an explanation for how they behave.

Goosebumps

Humans possess the ability to manipulate their hairs at will, make them stand up and lay down, via tiny muscles that contract at each follicle. Replace the hairs with your sacs and you have a method to control the position of those sacs relative to the skin with less hand waving than otherwise. The only downside (or upside, depending on your perspective) is that your Elves wouldn't have hair where they have sacs. This makes sense in the context that the sacs, when filled with air, provide insulation, so they don't need hair from an adaptation standpoint.

Conclusion

What I am not touching on here is process of a humanoid adapting these structures. Or the pockets. Pockets can just naturally exist without issue, like with a Kangaroo, but creating them at will means skin ripping itself apart and the closing up later, and I just can't rectify that biologically or scientifically within a useful time frame. Please enjoy these thoughts, and good luck building!

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Octopodes!

Basically what you're asking for is a bipedal octopus (or cuttlefish). Octopi have almost all the requirements you want, including freeform colour changes, texture changes, significant shape changes.

Adding the ability to change skin thickness is a minor detail compared to what octopuses can already do.

https://youtu.be/PmDTtkZlMwM?t=14

How cephalopod camouflage works

Chromatophores are organs that are present in the skin of many cephalopods, such as squids, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which contain pigment sacs that become more visible as small radial muscles pull the sac open making the pigment expand under the skin. Electrical activity within a chromatophore nerve (Fig. 2, G) causes the radial muscle fibers of the chromatophore (Fig. 2, D) to pull outward toward the perimeter of the chromatophore, expanding the central pigment sack (Fig. 2, A). Early morphologic and physiologic work by Florey (1969) showed that the radial muscles widen the pigment sac with increasing frequency of the nerve electrical activity. The radial muscles are thought to be connected to each other by gap junctions (Florey, 1969) so that they ‘dilate' the chromatophore in a symmetrical fashion. The elastomeric properties of the membrane around the pigment granules -the cytoeslastic sacculus (Fig. 2, C), is thought to be responsible for contracting the chromatophore after it has opened (Florey, 1969). The chromatophores can be opened quickly because they are controlled neurally: squid, cuttlefish and octopuses can change colors within milliseconds (Hanlon, 2007).

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They could be covered by a layer of small symbiotic insects that protect they host. They could inflate themselves to become better insulators, change colors (i think some real insects can do that) or even glow. It's a sort of biologic nano-bot dress.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not quite epidermis, is it? $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Sep 27 '19 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ not quite, but they might be so small to actually look like true skin. A crawling, shapeshifting, gross skin. $\endgroup$ – Jacopo Sep 27 '19 at 14:59
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Will a weird answer satisfy you?

All they need is thick hydraulic inter-vertebral disks and limb joints. When is cold outside, they simply contract to lower heights, their skin create folds, lower the area exposed to the outside and push the sub-dermal fat closer to the surface.

All that's needed extra to their physiology are some valves to maintain/release the synovial fluid + enough space between their internal organs and/or not very large such organsn (this is also [Why can an elf never become overweight?, they need the extra space between their internal organs to allow for height reduction).

I'm not sure, tho, what I described is and elf, an orc or an earthworm :)

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As stated by Separatrix and Tmartin, your Elves are a lot like octupi. However, I'd like to add in another idea, hair/cilia.

Your Elf could be covered in millions of tiny hairs that can move, extend, contract, and change in color and stiffness. These hairs could, with precise enough musculature, weave themselves into cloth.

Now, I highly doubt this could evolve naturally, but you never really asked for something evolutionarily sound.

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