When you’re out walking around the woods this summer, you might find something strange that an animal left behind – it’s skin! Imagine being able to crawl out of our skin as if it was a light jacket.
What is leaving the skin behind, why does the animal do that, and why can’t we?
Well first off, the animals that have the ability to shed their skin in the large clumps that we find have one huge thing in common – they are all cold-blooded. What type of animal is cold-blooded? – Reptiles! And it’s not just some of these ectotherms (or cold-blooded critters) that go through the shedding process, it’s every reptile!
We typically think of snakes and lizards as the ones that shed, but did you know that turtles shed as well? They have the ability to shed skin from their legs and neck as well as old scutes (the patterned plates on the tops and bottoms of their shells) as needed! The pieces of skin that fall off are just much smaller than that of a snake that will typically shed their entire skin at once.
Reptiles shed because their body grows as normal, yet their skin doesn’t. Every so often, the animal’s skin will start to get too tight and the reptile will start the shedding process to reveal a new, shiny layer of fresh skin! As the reptile sheds, they also are removing any parasites or irritants. The overall process of shedding is called ecdysis.
Suddenly, the reptile’s color will start to dull. This is because the top layer of skin is pulling away from the shiny one underneath. This dulling may include the eyes as some reptiles will shed their eye’s protective layer (spectacle scales) as well! Reptiles that have the ability to shed skin from their eyes will end up having a very bulgy-eyed look as they shed. As they puff out their eyes, this helps to loosen the old skin and make shedding easier. A younger reptile will shed more often since it is so busy growing, and may even shed every 2-4 weeks! As the reptile gets older, its growth slows; therefore increasing the time between sheds. Once ecdysis starts, it may take a few weeks for it to stop, provided the reptile isn’t a snake that will shed all at once.
Humans on the other hand are a different story. We do shed – constantly in fact. While reptiles will shed whole patched of skin, humans have the ability to remove and replace one skin cell at a time. Each minute, humans lose roughly 40,000 skin cells! Each cell is too tiny to see, but just like reptiles, humans can shed and regenerate their skin!
Want to learn more about the ectotherms that we have here in Bucks County? Join us for our PA Amphibian and Reptile Survey on August 20th, at 2pm! We will learn about the importance of these critters and how to ID them, and then head out on to our property for a hike to count the reptile and amphibian population. To register for this exciting event, click here!
Shedding in Bearded Dragons (like our Sheila pictured above!)
Color Changing in Reptiles