You wake up one morning to find sheets of transparent skin complete with scales and your reptile curled up in the corner of its enclosure. If you are a reptile keeper, finding the husk of your pet’s former skin should be no surprise to you. All reptiles shed their old skin as they grow, but are there any exceptions to this rule?
Are there reptiles that don’t shed?
No, all reptiles shed their old skin in some capacity. There are a few types of reptiles that shed less obviously than others like turtles, but all reptiles go through the shedding process periodically throughout their lives to grow and maintain good health.
We’ll dive into how often reptiles shed, the shedding process, the reason for shedding, and whether or not reptiles all shed in the same way.
Are There Reptiles That Don’t Shed?
All reptiles shed their old skin in some way, shape, or form. Studies have shown that even dinosaurs are said to have shed their skin in a similar manner to modern day lizards and crocodilians.
Shedding is one of the uniquely defining traits within the reptilian group. Their ability to regenerate their layers of skin in such a dramatic way is vastly different from the way mammals or other creatures renew their skin.
Some reptiles are less obvious about their shedding like turtles, while others shed their old skin in such a way that it cannot be ignored, like snakes. Let’s take a look at how shedding takes place and then we’ll study the different ways each group of reptiles goes through the process of shedding.
What Happens During the Shedding Process?
When a reptile is about to shed, you may notice a change in behavior. Oftentimes, a reptile’s appetite will change – either eating more voraciously or refusing to eat at all. Your pet reptile may also start hiding more often than usual.
In the wild, shedding indicates a period of vulnerability when the reptile lacked the hardened defenses of its scales and scutes. Shedding also involves a lot of energy, so there is little ability to defend themselves against potential predators. Hiding is the best way to protect themselves as they go through this necessary process.
An indication that the shedding process – also known as ecdysis – is about to begin is the dulling of the skin. This is especially apparent in reptiles that are normally brightly colored like chameleons and certain species of snakes. Some reptiles will also get a milky or blue tinge to their eyes from fluid building up under the old eye cover.
Eventually, the new skin forming underneath the shed will cause the shed to detach from the reptile’s body and slough off. For some reptiles, the shed will come off all in one piece; for others, it breaks off piecemeal.
Once the old shed is completely off, it may take your reptile a few days to return to its normal eating habits and activities since it is still waiting for the new skin to toughen up. Some reptiles will eat their old shed not only to gain protein for developing their new skin but also to clean up their area and minimize the attraction of predators.
It is important to note when your pet reptile sheds because you need to make sure that the old skin has been fully shed. Incomplete ecdysis – or shed retention – can result in infection or be caused by a serious issue such as disease, dehydration, or malnutrition. Contact your vet if your reptile has not completely sloughed its old shed.
Why Do Reptiles Shed?
There are two reasons why all reptiles go through periodic shedding. The first is in order to grow. The scales that lay on top of a reptile’s skin are often hard in order to provide a layer of protection and do not allow for growth without a drastic change.
This change comes in the form of shedding. In the same way that our skin grows with us so that we can get bigger, a reptile’s body creates a new layer of bigger skin underneath the old one to allow the reptile to grow larger. Under the right living conditions, this method of growth could allow most reptiles to grow infinitely!
The second reason why reptiles shed their skin is to rid themselves of any skin diseases or parasites. By shedding the old layer of skin, reptiles can effectively evict any unwanted inhabitants that have made a comfortable home out of their skin and scales.
Do All Reptiles Shed the Same Way?
Even though all reptiles go through ecdysis, they don’t all do it the same way. Let’s take a look to see how the four major groups of reptiles tackle shedding their skin.
Turtles are the most cryptic when it comes to shedding. They will periodically slough off the exposed skin on their head, neck, and limbs in patches. However, when it comes to the skin on their backs, shedding is hindered thanks to their shells.
As an adaptation, turtles will simply add new layers of skin underneath their shells to keep growing. Softshell turtles do not have this problem since their shells are not as impenetrable and these species will do a complete body shedding as a result.
Most turtles that have hard shells made of keratin scutes will also shed their shells one scute at a time. Each scale of the shells will peel off as a new one forms underneath it.
The video above is a great example of how a turtle’s shell scales will peel off individually!
Snakes are the poster child for shedding and even if you don’t have a pet snake, you’ve doubtless seen old snake sheds from wild ones scattered around in nature.
When a snake sheds its skin, all of it peels off in one piece. Starting at the head, the shed slowly sloughs off and once it gets past the sensitive areas of the head like the eyes and mouth, snakes will rub themselves against other surfaces to help the shedding process.
Once a snake has completed shedding, you will find a fully intact ghostly replica of your reptile. Even scaleless snakes shed their skin since it is the skin that is shed and not just the scales by themselves.
You can check out the rattlesnake in the video as she sheds her skin, even molting the old rattle:
No matter what kind of lizard you have for a pet whether it is a bearded dragon, chameleon, gecko, or another type, it will shed its skin. Unlike snakes which shed all at once, most lizards shed their old skin in patches. The most obvious indication that your lizard is starting to shed is a signature splitting of the shed down the back of your pet.
See the patches of skin coming off this bearded dragon in the video above and how carefully his owner helps remove them around the spiky scales of his new skin!
Some lizards like geckos actually eat their own shed, so it’s important to know whether or not to leave shed skin in your reptile’s enclosure for extra nutrients or remove it so that it doesn’t encourage parasites and disease.
Believe it or not, the largest reptiles like alligators and crocodiles also experience ecdysis. Their process is more similar to lizards than snakes though. Since their skin consists of large hard scutes on their backs and smaller, softer scales on their bellies, they shed their skin in patches.
Scutes are usually removed one at a time. However, similar to snakes, crocodilians will rub their skin against trees or rough rocks in order to help the process along.
How Often Do Reptiles Shed?
The rate at which reptiles shed depends on the species, their environment, and their age. Younger reptiles tend to shed more often since their growth rate is faster in the juvenile stages of life. As they get older, shedding becomes less often but still occurs.
If your reptile is in a less then ideal environment, shedding may not happen when it should. Most reptiles require high humidity and warm temperatures. In the wintertime especially, if conditions are too dry, reptiles may not shed or may have great difficulty with the process.
Most reptiles will shed on average two to four times per year. However, some species may shed as often as once a month such as chameleons and some snakes. Turtles typically shed their shell scutes only once a year. Crocodilians experience continual shedding as they grow.
Shedding is an essential process in the life of a reptile. Shedding is the way reptiles grow and rid themselves of skin diseases and parasites. All reptiles experience shedding throughout their lives, but the frequency and manner in which they shed depend largely on the species.
Whether it’s a full body shedding like a snake or scale by scale like an alligator, reptiles leave their mark by sloughing off their old skin. The next time your pet reptile starts to shed, marvel at the amazing and unique process these animals use to grow and stay healthy!