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Why Do Snakes Shed Their Skins?

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  • Originally Written By: N. Madison
  • Revised By: Phil Riddel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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The shed skins of snakes often arouse curiosity among those who find them, but in actual fact, all animals shed their skins. This is not obvious in mammals such as humans, as it is an ongoing, unnoticed, process in which dead cells are continuously coming off. Reptiles, however, are different in that they shed periodically, and in the case of snakes, the entire skin normally comes off in one piece, a procedure that can be likened to removing a sock. This shedding is not without purpose: snakes replace their skins to allow for growth, as well as to remove parasites along with the old skin.

As a snake grows, its skin becomes stretched and worn. A point is reached when it cannot accommodate further growth, so a new skin grows underneath. When this is complete, the old skin will be discarded, along with any parasites it may have picked up. The new skin retains the same patterns and colors as the old.

Mechanism

Prior to shedding, a snake’s skin becomes pale and dull, and the eyes turn a bluish-white shade. This is due to a layer of fluid building up between the old skin and the new one underneath. During this period, captive snakes may be nervous and irritable, possibly because they cannot see properly until the old skin becomes detached from the head. They will not normally eat in the days leading up to shedding and will tend to hide, as they are vulnerable at this time.

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Once the new skin has fully developed, the old skin is no longer firmly attached to the snake’s body, and shedding can begin. Sometimes, the reptile will immerse itself in water immediately beforehand. The snake will generally assist the process by brushing against something hard and rough, like a rock, and creating a rip in the surface, usually in the nose and mouth area. The snake continues to work on this rip until the skin comes off, inside out, in one piece.

Frequency

Snakes shed quite frequently, but exactly how often depends on the species, the quantity and quality of food it eats, and, most of all, the age of the reptile. The average is two to four times per year, but young snakes, since they are growing more rapidly, may shed their skins every two weeks. When they reach adulthood, however, growth will have slowed, and they may only do it twice a year.

Problems

Shedding is not always without incident, and sometimes things can go wrong. For example, if the humidity in the air is too low, the skin can be too dry to shed. Portions of the old skin that remain attached can harbor parasites or provide a breeding ground for diseases. Furthermore, if the skin at the tip of the tail fails to detach correctly, it can cut off the snake’s blood flow over time and actually cause the end portion of the tail to come off.

Identification

When the old skin is shed, it doesn’t look exactly the same as its replacement. The skin takes on a nearly transparent appearance, and, due to stretching, is larger than the snake. It can still, however, be used by an expert to identify the snake if the person who finds it in her backyard is concerned that it could come from a venomous species. To have it identified, the individual can collect as much of the skin as possible and take it to a science museum, a zoo, a science center, or an individual with an in-depth knowledge of snakes. To preserve the snakeskin while in transit, it should be placed in a protective container.

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Discuss this Article

anon311157
Post 21

My corn snake seems to have a broken/ limp tail just beyond his vent. His sheds are great and he was just last out on Thursday, and today is Saturday. What could have happened? There are no herp vets close to me! Advice?

anon287627
Post 19

Is the skin shed by a snake the same size as the snake?

anon268282
Post 18

Hey everyone, first of all relax, it is completely natural for a snake to shed it's skin. They will shed more often when babies. It literally has outgrown its skin and sheds to allow room for growth. As it gets older, shedding will become less frequent as growth slows when they reach maturity. The milky eyes is known as in blue, and this will clear in a few days then in a few more it will shed.

For problems with incomplete sheds (it should come off in one piece), simply place the snake in a tub of water and soak them for 15 to 20 min a day. Do not peel! You can injure the snake if the skin is not ready! To prevent this from happening, be sure you have the right humidity in your enclosure. You can mist the cage down with water a few times a day during its shedding time. Or place a large bowl of water over the area of a heat pad, or under a heat lamp to create humidity. Place a towel on top of the cage as well, to maintain the moisture levels.

And if my novel of an answer does not help, I highly recommend all new snake owners to research their animals to ensure their health and you a long life with your new friends!

Ball Python Rescue

anon262180
Post 17

I'm doing a science fair project about snakes shedding. I have a ball python that's shedding but there's not a lot about that, so does anyone have a science fair project that's cool?

anon248886
Post 16

I have a CB striped California kingsnake and it just shed like last month and just shed just now. I don't know why.

anon103979
Post 13

To the last comment: Usually when a snake sheds in rapid succession, it is due to damage to the skin, usually from some kind of injury. It is normal for this to happen. However, if this has gone on for more than a few weeks or you were unaware of any injury I would take your snake to a vet.

anon100348
Post 12

Can anyone advise me as to whats wrong?

My daughter's snake is shedding its skin too much -- about six times in the last week. she is so worried but not really getting any answers. please, is there anyone who can help?

anon98154
Post 11

first time snake owner, and my baby corn is the milky color right now. i got a bowl with a damp towel and a lid with the top cut off so he can escape if he chooses. i hope i am doing the right thing for him.

anon85640
Post 9

We have a five foot corn snake named kenny and to help him shed I dampen a pillow case in warm water and put him in there for 15 minutes with a knot in the end.

The warm moist material really helps him (he never wants to come out) and after two nights of doing this he sheds completely. A very cheap and effective, helpful remedy to help your snake.

anon65249
Post 8

well first off for the top guy he needs to spray the tank every day and keep it at the right temperature level. if that don't work get shedding aid. hope that helps

anon61063
Post 7

my brother's snake is having problems shedding its skin. he has had this royal python since august 2009, and it has never been able to shed properly. he has three others which are fine but this one just can't.

he puts loads of water in bowls in with him but can anyone help with what else to do?

anon47444
Post 6

when my snake has shed his skin, if there is a little bit left on the tail, i get a piece of cotton wool and some warm water and keep dabbing his tail until the leftover skin loosens and comes away. This doesn't hurt him, the only annoying thing about it is that snakes love to roam around so you need to do it whilst he's moving. lol

anon40718
Post 5

omigosh. that's exactly whats happening to my snake! i don't want his tail to fall off! what can i do about it?? i don't want to hurt him by peeling off his skin. but i don't want to pay a bunch of money to take him to the vet, either.

8(

anon37069
Post 4

I hope not!

anon34654
Post 3

Do snakes return for their shed skin?

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