Do Reptiles Have Lips? (Vet Tech Explains)

Do Reptiles Have Lips

Reptiles have a reputation for being creepy, scaly, cold-blooded critters. Because of that reputation, many people misunderstand reptiles.

To top it off, we don’t often learn as much about reptiles as we do about other animals in school. So, we’re often left with many questions about reptiles. One puzzling thing about reptiles is their lips. When you imagine a reptile, you usually think about its teeth first and don’t consider whether or not they have lips.

So, do reptiles have lips?

Many reptiles do have lips but they aren’t the lips you’re imagining. Reptile lips are often hard and scaly if they’re present and can’t be moved much. Despite that, many lizards, snakes, and other reptiles, do you have lips. A few of them even have the soft, fleshy, lips that we’re familiar with. 

In this article, we’ll talk all about reptile lips. We’ll dive into species specifics, and mention which reptiles have the plumpest lips of them all. First, we’re going to describe what a lip really is and talk about why animals have them in the first place.

What Are Lips?

It seems like a rudimentary question to ask what lips are. But, for the purpose of this article, it’s pretty important.   When you think about lips, you probably think about human lips.

Human lips are very different from most animal lips. Even though they might look different, most mammals actually have lips.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, lips are defined as the fleshy pieces that are around a human or animal’s mouth. Lips are present in many vertebrates and are needed for human speech.

Some of the most notable animals that have lips are apes and chimpanzees, camels, horses, and, of course, dogs. Dogs have very thick large pieces of flesh that cover their teeth that we would consider lips.

If you can’t picture it, check out the video below for a funny compilation of dogs’ lips flapping in the air.

Why Do Animals Have Lips?

Most traits that animals have serve a function and lips are no exception. In animals, lips often serve three important functions.

The first function that lips serve is to keep the teeth and gums moist. The mouth is an area that functions fast while moist. With a dry mouth, the chances of developing gum disease increase.

Saliva also helps to keep bacteria and tartar levels under control. Without lips, an animal’s mouth would quickly dry out and medical problems would soon follow.

The second function that lips serve is to help animals forage. Some animals have overdeveloped lips that they can use to pick and pull on their food. Carnivores don’t usually use their lips much because they need their teeth to shred through prey items. However, many herbivores can be seen using their lips to pull leaves off of plants.

A great example is the giraffe. Giraffes use their long lips, and, of course, their tongues to pluck vegetation off of trees. The video below is a great example of how a giraffe would use their lips to forage.

Lastly, some animals use their lips to make vocalizations. Lips help some animals, make distinctive calls that serve as communication with other members of their species. Primates are especially well known for using their lips to make species-specific noises and calls.

Why Do Humans Have Lips?

Humans have lips for the same reasons that animals do, plus many more.

Not only do humans have lips to forage, keep our mouths, moist, and communicate, but we also use our lips for other things.

In humans, lips are used as a tactile organ, a sensual organ, and a way to express emotion. Lips are the last line of defense to check food to see if it’s too hot or too cold before eating.

Lips are also used for kissing. And of course, lips are an important way to show someone whether you’re happy or upset by smiling or frowning.

As we can see, lips are pretty important. Not only for humans, but for many other animals lips are essential for survival.  But what about reptiles?

Do Reptiles Have Lips?

It’s pretty clear that some reptiles do have lips. However, many reptiles do not have the same lips that mammals do. Since reptiles have scales instead of skin or fur their lips are bound to look a little different.

Reptile lips are often scaly and hard. The scales around reptile mouths are slightly different than other scales on their body. They’re called labial scales and are named from the Latin word for lip. These scales are absolutely a lip-like structure and serve the same purpose that fleshy lips do.

One of the surprising reptiles that truly has fleshy lips are softshell turtles, which we’ll talk more about below. In contrast to softshell turtles, most turtles and tortoises do not have lips at all.

So, when you ask if reptiles have lips, and the answer is yes, and no. It really varies amongst groups of reptiles and even amongst species within those groups.

Do Lizards Have Lips?

Lizards are a large group of four-legged reptiles that are found both in the wild and kept as pets. Some common pet lizards are bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and iguanas. If you can, picture these animals in your mind, you can probably picture their mouths as well.

Lizards do not have fleshy lips. Instead, lizards have a lining of scales around their mouths, called labial scales. These scales serve the function to protect teeth and to keep the mouth moist.

Unlike mammal lips, lizard lips can’t be used to vocalize or forage. Lizard lips are tough and might help these small reptiles chew food like small insects.

When lizards close their mouths their lips are sealed shut and create a barrier between their mouths and the outside world.

Do Turtles And Tortoises Have Lips?

For the most part, turtles and tortoises, do not have lips.

Instead, turtles and tortoises have an adaptation called a beak, which is very similar to the beak you would see on a bird. A turtle’s beak is hard and pointy and grows continuously throughout the animal’s life.

Turtles use their beaks to help them to bite and tear their food before ingesting it. These beaks can be incredibly sharp and pointy and can be used to defend themselves from predators as well.

If you’ve ever been bitten by a turtle or a tortoise, you know how strong their beaks are. These beaks are nothing like lips and turtle mouths are just very different from other animals’ mouths overall.

Softshell Turtles

Softshell turtles are the one surprising exception to the rule that turtles and tortoises do not have lips.

Softshell turtles are a large group of turtles that are spread throughout the world. These turtles live in freshwater and have smooth “soft” shells. Softshell turtles are completely aquatic and usually have to be underwater to swallow their food.

These turtles have long snorkel-like noses that let them breathe fresh air while remaining hidden underwater.

In addition to all of these traits, softshell turtles also have soft lips that help them trap and swallow prey whole. Like snakes, softshell turtles don’t chew their food before eating it. Their lips help them breathe and swim without resistance.

Do Snakes Have Lips?

Just like lizards, snakes have labial scales. While these legless reptiles don’t have fleshy lips, they do have tough hard scales that line their mouths.

Snake lips have a few special adaptations. One of the cutest adaptations that snakes have on their lips is a small hole in the middle. This tiny hole allows them to flick their tongues continuously in and out, without opening their mouths.

Since snake lips are so tough and scaly, there would be no other way for their tongue to escape and gather useful sensory information.

Some species of snakes also have pits on their labial scales. These pits contain heat-sensing organs and allow hunters to better detect prey.

Do Crocodiles And Alligators Have Lips?

It’s hard to argue that alligators and crocodiles have lips. If lips serve the purpose of protecting the teeth and foraging, what crocodiles and alligators have are not lips.

You’ll notice that crocodiles’ and alligators’ teeth are often exposed to the elements. That’s because they really don’t have lips to cover them up. On top of that, crocodiles and alligators, don’t need their lips to help them forage and hunt prey. Their incredibly strong jaws do a good enough job of that alone.

While crocodiles do have some scales along their mouths, they don’t form or function as lips.

Why Do Some Reptiles Have Lips And Some Don’t?

We mentioned above that some reptiles have lips and others don’t. The most likely answer to why some reptiles do and don’t have lips is evolution.

Reptiles are very specialized animals that have amazing adaptations to survive in harsh environments. Some reptiles are able to regrow their tails if they’ve been lost to a predator. Others can live in freezing cold temperatures, even though they’re cold-blooded. Many reptiles can even swim and that’s a clear sign of where these animals evolved from.

For reptiles that do have lips, lips serve the same functions as they do for other animals. Reptile lips help to keep teeth and gums moist and might even aid with foraging.

Reptiles that don’t have lips usually have some other adaptation to help protect their mouths and to help with eating.  If you’re wondering what other adaptations reptiles might have besides lips, keep reading.

Final Thoughts

Lips are kind of a funny body part to think about. Even among humans lips look different. And once you start looking at animal lips things get a little weird.

Many reptiles have lips, but they look different than what we expect. Reptile lips are hard and scaly and not used for all of the same functions that mammal lips are used for.

Some reptiles like softshell turtles have true lips that they use to swallow prey whole. Other reptiles like Sulcata tortoises don’t have lips at all and instead have sharp beaks.

So, when you ask the question, do reptiles have lips, it’s hard to give a straight answer. Some do, and some don’t. You’ll probably have to look at a species in specific to get a straight yes or no answer to this question.