Reptile molting, also called ecdysis, is a unique way that a reptile gets rid of old skin. The process is very similar to regular shedding, but it’s much more intense.
During the molting process snakes may look bluish and their eyes become opaque, hindering vision. They rub their bodies on abrasive objects to break the outer layer and then crawl out of it like they are peeling off a sock.
What is a molt?
The word molt is derived from the Latin root mutare, meaning “to change.” It refers to the periodic shedding of an outer covering like skin or feathers for replacement by a new growth. Many reptiles, including snakes and lizards, undergo this process. Shedding is also known as ecdysis or sloughing.
As with feathers, the molting of reptiles is called pelage, and it serves a number of important functions for these animals. It helps keep the animal warm, allows it to see in dim light, and protects it from ultraviolet radiation. It also enables these animals to grow, since a growing snake or lizard must replace its outer covering to continue to grow.
When a reptile is preparing to shed its skin, it becomes grayish and dully colored and has a milky cast over its eyes. Then it rubs against objects like rocks or bark to get the old skin to split, and then it crawls out of its discarded covering, turning itself inside-out. It eats the discarded skin, which contains nutrients that it needs to re-energize itself.
Shedding is a fascinating and valuable part of the life cycle for all reptiles, both those found in the wild and those kept as pets. But it can be a bit of a challenge to identify the species that you’re watching when they’re in the middle of their molting process! You can practice by looking for the different plumages of the birds that visit your feeders.
Why do snakes shed their skin?
Skin shedding is a normal part of the life cycle of snakes and other reptiles. The integument of these animals serves as the primary buffer between their internal organs and the external environment, protecting them from damage caused by sunlight, bacteria, and other factors. The shedding of this outer layer of scales, also known as the epidermis, is a natural process that occurs in both active and dormant snakes. Shedding usually occurs one or more times during a reptile’s life span.
As most people are aware, our skin changes constantly, as old cells flake away and new ones grow underneath. However, unlike our skin, snakes and other reptiles shed their entire skin, a process called ecdysis or sloughing.
When a reptile is ready to shed, it will rub its head or snout against a rough surface like a rock or log to create a “breaking point” and then crawl out of the old layer of skin, leaving it behind like a discarded sock. Shedding can be dangerous for snakes, because it exposes their fragile undersides to predators. This is why they typically hide in their dens or burrows until the sloughed-off skin is removed.
Snakes that are ill or underfed can have a difficult time with ecdysis, as their bodies lack the nutrients required for proper breakdown of the old and new layers. This can result in a patchy shed, where only bits of the old skin come off rather than all at once as is normally the case.
How do snakes shed their skin?
Snakes’ skin is made of a durable material called keratin, which also makes up fingernails, horns and hair. The scales provide protection against predators and threats, but they also have an important locomotive function by reducing friction as the snake slides along the ground. The scales must be renewed fairly often to perform their functions well. Shedding is one of the ways that this occurs.
Reptiles shed their old skin in several different ways, but all have one thing in common: they must break a seal between the old layer of keratin and the new layer beneath it. The way they do this is by creating a rip in the old skin, typically near the snake’s mouth or nose area. Then they rub their body against rocks, plants and other rough objects to slough off the old skin.
Once the sloughing starts, it usually goes quickly. As the old skin breaks up, a lubricating foam forms that helps the snake slip out of its old shell. Snakes will sometimes go for a swim in the hope that water loosens their old skin even more.
When the shedding process is complete, you can often tell that your snake has shed by looking at the pattern left behind in its cast skin husk. The discarded skin also tends to look darker in color than your snake’s normal coloration, thanks to the presence of melanin in the scales. This is why it’s best not to handle your snake right before or immediately after a shed.
How do lizards shed their skin?
In squamate reptiles (including snakes and lizards), skin shedding is called ecdysis. Squamates can shed their skin like mammals do, but they usually do it by rubbing their head or snout against rough surfaces and then “crawl” out of the old skin, similar to how humans remove a sock from their foot.
As a reptile grows, its skin becomes tighter and will eventually become too small for the animal. This is when the animal needs to molt. In a healthy animal, the shedding process should take place within a day. During this time, most reptiles lose their appetite and become inactive. This is why it is important to provide a comfortable environment for the reptile during this time.
Prior to a molt, a reptile’s coloring will dull and its eyes will have a milky appearance. It will then start to rub its head or snout against rocks and other rough objects in order to create a breaking point in the skin. The sloughing process begins with the end nearest to the head and moves down, turning the moulted skin inside-out.
Occasionally, a reptile will experience a difficult shed and may retain shed on areas like eye caps, tails and dorsal crest spikes or fans. If left in these areas, the shed can constrict around the extremity and cut off blood flow. This is called a stuck shed and it is critical to prevent this by providing a proper enclosure, adding a humidity retreat box and misting the reptile periodically.