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A Fresh Start in New Skin

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As we enter the new year, many of us think about starting fresh with a clean slate. There are some animals at the WNC Nature Center that take on this mindset as well, except that it has nothing to do with the date or season. When a reptile or amphibian is ready for a new beginning, they shed their skin.

While snakes are most famous for this process, all animals shed their skin, including us! Humans shed millions of skin cells every day, but they’re too small for us to see. If you’ve ever scratched your arm and noticed a little bit of “dust” that came off under your fingernails, that’s our version of shedding.

But reptiles and amphibians often shed their skin in much larger pieces, which is why it’s so noticeable. This process, known as ecdysis, is a natural part of their life cycle and allows them to continue to grow. It’s also a way to slough off any harmful parasites. One exception to this rule are turtles, who shed their skin more similarly to humans.

Many herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) eat their shed since this outer layer is filled with absorbed nutrients. The shedding process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Animals often stop eating during this time, so consuming their shed can also be a way to “kick-start” their digestive system.

Shedding can occur from a couple times a year to a couple times a month, depending on where the animal is in their growth cycle. For many herptiles, there isn’t much of a noticeable change in appearance during this process. 

However, when snakes are preparing to shed, they become opaque, meaning that their whole body turns a milky blue color. Even their eyes become opaque since they have scales instead of eyelids. This change in color is due to a build-up of fluid between the old and new skin layers. The snake will then rub its head against surfaces to create a tear in the old skin, starting from the mouth and continuing down its body. The snake then slithers out of its old skin and is ready to move forward with a fresh new layer. The next time you visit the Nature Center, keep an eye out for signs of shedding. This could include a milky-colored snake, an anole with pieces of skin sloughing off, or a floating translucent shed in the hellbender habitat. As we step into the new year, take a leaf out of a herptile’s book: shed the old and welcome the new!

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