Why Do Reptiles Eat Their Shed Skin? (Vet Tech Explains)

Why Do Reptiles Eat Their Shed Skin

Reptiles are a fascinating group of animals that have evolved unique behaviors and adaptations over millions of years. One of the most interesting things that reptiles do is shed their old skin. Even more intriguing than shedding skin is that some reptiles choose to eat their old shed skin.

While this behavior may seem peculiar or even a bit repulsive to some, it serves several important purposes in the lives of these cold-blooded creatures.

So, why do reptiles eat their old shed skin?

If you notice your pet reptile eating their old skin, don’t worry; it’s natural! The main reason that reptiles eat their old shed skin is to replace nutrition. Reptiles might also eat their old shed skin to camouflage their scents. Eating old shed skin is even a sign that your reptile is in good health!

In this article, we’ll delve into the reasons that explain why reptiles engage in this odd behavior. We’ll talk about the biology, ecology, and evolutionary significance behind it. First, let’s refresh ourselves on the basics of reptile shedding.

Shedding Skin: The Basics

To understand why reptiles consume old shed skin, it’s important to have a good understanding of shedding in general.

There aren’t any species of reptiles that don’t shed, at least to some extent. Though different groups of reptiles shed in different ways, this behavior is one thing that unifies this group of animals.  Shedding skin is a natural and necessary part of a reptile’s life cycle.

Unlike mammals, reptiles have scales made of keratin that cover their bodies. As reptiles grow, their skin doesn’t grow with them, so they need to periodically shed their old, worn-out skin to make room for new growth.

All reptiles shed their skin, even turtles, which seem like they wouldn’t, shed the skin on their legs and the plates on top of their shells from time to time.

The Shedding Process

As reptiles prepare to shed, they often go through a phase where their skin becomes dull. Some reptiles, like leopard geckos, may even start to look white all over. At this point, they’re less active and may even be lethargic. Depending on the species, this pre-shed phase can last several days to weeks.

Once the reptile is ready to shed, it typically seeks out a suitable hiding place or burrow. There, they’re able to rub and scratch against surfaces to loosen old skin. If you notice your pet reptile has been hiding away for a few days at a time, it might be because they’re preparing to get rid of that old skin! This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

After this initial shed, you might see your pet reptile start to eat some of the pieces of their old shed skin. Some reptiles might eat their skin off of the floor of their enclosure, and others might have a snack directly off of their bodies.

Shedding isn’t a typically painful process but can be an uncomfortable and vulnerable time for a reptile. Shedding can also make reptiles feel irritated and itchy, so don’t be surprised if your scaly friend is a little sensitive during this period.

4 Reasons Why Reptiles Eat Their Shed Skin

So what motivates reptiles to eat their skin?

It’s a pretty weird behavior, and when reptiles do it, they can actually eat quite a bit of skin at one time. In the video below, you can observe a healthy leopard gecko go through its entire shedding process and finish by eating its old skin.

Here are some reasons why reptiles eat their shed skin.

Reason 1: Nutrient Recycling

The primary reason reptiles eat their shed skin is for nutrient recycling.

Old shed skin is surprisingly rich in various nutrients, including proteins and minerals. When reptiles consume their shed skin, they can recover some of these valuable nutrients.

Captive reptiles can benefit greatly from consuming shed skin. For example, calcium is one mineral that pet reptiles are notoriously short on. Many lizards experience symptoms of hypocalcemia at some point in their lives. Luckily, skin is notably rich in calcium. If you ask us, that’s a win-win when your pet consumes their old shed.

Wild animals also benefit nutritionally from eating their old shed skin. More often than not, wild animals are in situations where resources are scarce or unpredictable.  Wild reptiles are smart to consume old shed skin because they’re never sure when their next meal will be.

Reason 2: Minimizing Odor And Presence

In the wild, many reptiles are vulnerable to predators. Even those that are carnivores typically have larger animals hunting them. The scent of old shed skin could be a dead giveaway to a predator that a prey animal is near.

Consuming shed skin serves as a way to minimize odor and the presence of a reptile in its environment. This behavior is particularly advantageous for reptiles that rely on stealth and camouflage to avoid detection.

Many reptile predators, like birds of prey and carnivorous mammals, rely on their acute sense of smell to locate potential meals. Consuming shed skin ultimately helps reptiles temporarily mask their scent and makes it harder for predators to pinpoint their location.

Shedding is a particularly stressful and vulnerable time. During the shedding process, reptiles’ eyes can become clouded over, and their vision will become impaired. As we mentioned above, many reptiles become lethargic and sluggish before shedding. By consuming shed skin, reptiles reduce the potential of attracting a predator during this vulnerable time.

Reason 3: Maintaining Hydration

It’s possible that some reptiles consume their old skin to help maintain hydration.

Reptiles have a unique challenge when it comes to maintaining adequate hydration. Unlike mammals, they do not produce urine to excrete waste and excess water efficiently. Instead, they excrete uric acid, which conserves water but can result in a loss of essential electrolytes.

Eating shed skin can help reptiles replenish some of those lost electrolytes, which aids in hydration maintenance.

Reason 4: Hormone Regulation

The last intriguing aspect of shed skin consumption is its potential role in hormone regulation.

Some studies suggest that ingesting old shed skin may influence hormonal changes and reptiles, particularly in relation to reproductive behavior. It’s believed that by consuming the shed skin, reptiles may transfer hormonal signals that convey information about their reproductive status or readiness. As you can imagine, this can play a role in mate attraction and courtship behaviors.

It’s more likely that reptiles in the wild or reptiles living with other members of their own species would eat their skin for this reason.

Do All Reptiles Eat Their Shed Skin?

Consumption of shed skin is a widespread behavior among many reptiles, but it’s important to note that not all reptile species exhibit this behavior. The likelihood of an animal to eat shed skin can vary depending on factors such as species, age, and environmental conditions.

Variation Among Species

Different reptile species have different dietary requirements and occupy different ecological niches. Some reptiles have evolved alternative strategies to cope with the challenges of shedding. Many other reptiles have simply embraced the practice of consuming their shed skin as a useful survival technique.

In general, most lizard species have adapted to eat their skin both in the wild and in captivity. It’s much less common to observe a snake eating its own skin. Occasionally, pet snakes may eat their own shed out of boredom or hunger, but it’s not something you’ll normally be able to observe. There are even reports from turtle owners of individuals trying to eat flakes of their old shell as it sheds off.

Age Matters

In some species, young reptiles may be more likely to consume shed skin than adults.

This behavior is especially important for hatchlings as it helps them gain essential nutrients during a critical growing phase. It also keeps them safe from predators by helping to camouflage their scent and any trace of their presence.

It’s somewhat similar to the way chicks consume their egg sacs in the first few days after hatching. It’s just another survival technique that gives these little animals a slight leg up!

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can affect whether or not a reptile consumes its old shed skin.

Reptiles that have plenty of resources available to them might not rely on the consumption of shed skin. On the other hand, reptiles that are starving or dehydrated might choose to consume their skin when they otherwise wouldn’t.

Frequently Asked Questions

Hopefully, we’ve answered your biggest inquiries about reptiles eating their shed skin. Here are a few answers to frequently asked questions on the topic.

Why Do Leopard Geckos Eat Their Shed Skin?

Leopard geckos eat their own skin for all of the reasons mentioned above. Leopard geckos are one of the most common pet reptiles that can be observed eating their skin in captivity. Most leopard geckos eat their skin every single time they shed.

Like any other reptile, leopard geckos eat their skin for nutrition, to maintain hydration, to camouflage their scent, and to share hormonal information.

Why Do Bearded Dragons Eat Their Shed Skin?

It’s perfectly normal and natural for bearded dragons to eat their shed skin.

While it might not happen, as often as it doesn’t, leopard geckos, you can definitely catch your bearded dragon, eating their skin from time to time. Of course, hatchlings will eat their skin as they’re growing into their bodies to help replace nutritional deficits. Eat their skin for all of the same reasons that we have talked about above.

Should You Stop Your Reptile From Eating Their Shed Skin?

There’s really no reason for you to stop your pet reptile from eating their shed skin.  If your reptile doesn’t eat the skin, you’ll likely throw it away anyway. When a reptile eats their own skin, it’s beneficial for them and more maze than one.

However, if your reptile’s shed skin gets caught up in substrate or something dirty, that’s a different situation. Substrate like sand should never be eaten, and if your reptile’s skin is covered in sand, remove it from its mouth as soon as you can. Likewise, shed skin that is dirty or covered in feces, should be removed before your pet can eat it.

Final Thoughts

It’s so weird that some reptiles eat their old shed skin, and at the same time, it’s one of the most natural behaviors they exhibit in captivity today. Eating old shed skin is instinctual. When reptiles eat their old shed skin, they’re able to replace some of the nutrients they lost during the shedding process.

Eating old shed skin can also help reptiles maintain hydration and camouflage their scents. Eating shed skin may even give mating reptiles information about whether their partner is ready to breed or not!

So, if you catch your pet reptile eating its old shed, you don’t need to intervene.  This slightly gross behavior is nothing to worry about!