Cornelius' Corner:

"New Year, New Skin"

Cornelius’ Corner: “New Year, New Skin”

Happy New Year, friends!

Cornelius with opaque scale caps on his eyes before a shed.

While many people are making resolutions and new starts in the New Year, I find that this is the best time to change into a new skin! Some people find snakes shedding to be odd or scary, but here’s a little secret – everybody sheds! Humans (and other mammals) continually shed dead skin cells as they grow new ones. The only different with snakes is that we shed our old skin cells all in one big piece, in a processes called ecdysis.

Our skin is covered in scales, which are made of keratin. This is the same material that human fingernails are made of, and it is not stretchy at all. This means that as we grow, our scales can get a little tight. The scales might also become worn or damaged as we move around our habitats.

To start shedding, first we grow a new, roomier layer of skin under the existing one. We have to eat more at this time to have enough nutrients to build the new scales. Next, the old outer layer of scales begins to separate from the layer underneath. During this period, a snake’s scales may start to look gray or dull. My coworkers tell me that my skin starts to feel rougher too.

The scale caps we have on our eyes (instead of eyelids) begin to separate as well, which causes our eyes to look opaque. It also means that we can’t see very well and become vulnerable to predators. As a result, we find a quiet safe place to hide until we finish shedding. I prefer to hide out under my log, and I get kind of cranky. I don’t want to say hi to visitors, and I definitely don’t want to help with field trips!

Once the old scales have adequately separated, it is time to get them off. Snakes typically start by rubbing their heads against something rough to create a tear in the old scales. I like to use one of my pinecones, or maybe my big climbing branch for this purpose. Next, we basically wiggle our way out of the old scales like you might wiggle out of a tight sweater or pair of pants. Once all the scales are off, we’re back to our regular activities.

The number of times a snake sheds per year depends on their age, growth rate, and diet. When I was very young and growing really fast, I had to shed almost every month. Now that I’m an adult snake and not growing as fast, I usually only shed between three and four times per year.

Have you ever seen or felt a real snake skin? Feel free to stop by my tank in the Visitor Center to see an old one of mine!

– Cornelius

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