Out with the old, in with the new

Getting to Know the Neighbours

By Pat McKrill

“Throughout your life, your skin will change constantly – in fact, it will regenerate itself approximately every 27 days.” Source – you guessed it – Google. No, it’s not fake news, it’s true, give or take a few days.

I’ve always believed that the period was 7 weeks, nevertheless, it is a fact that we humans frequently change our outer layer of skin (epidermis), probably not something you’d want to think about while eating your bowl of Corn Flakes. We must look like moving snowflake machines as we walk around. Scary.

Many creatures in nature, eg snakes, spiders, chameleons and frogs, also change theirs during their lifetimes, mostly because of growth but not always, and there’s a difference. They do it in one deliberate movement. A bit like us removing a complete all-covering garment – lumps and bumps included – in one movement. Very scary.

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The outer skin of a snake is comprised of hard, variously designed blocks – referred to as scales – integral to the full skin cover, and they are not as such, individually removable scales, as are those of a fish. They’re designed to provide protection and functionality. The dorsal (upper body) scales provide protection against weather, damage, attack by other creatures etc and the ventral (stomach) scales also assist with locomotion.

Some scales have additional beneficial design modifications that assist with specific tasks. The clear, round scales covering the eyes are included in this skin “coverall”, and they too are shed during skin changes.

A puff adder “in the blue”.

As the snake grows, the skin between each scale block, referred to as the interstitial skin, which is more often than not a different colour, becomes more noticeable. This is sometimes used to warn off attackers, and Boomslang and Vine snakes under attack, will expand the throat area to expose their brightly coloured skin as a defense. Mozambique spitting cobras have black interstitial skin, a useful diagnostic when trying to identify a mystery snake – before it spits at you.

An expended shed skin will be longer than its previous owner, so don’t stress if you find one draped over the rafters – you can take about 20% off before you run screaming down the road.

All things s-s-s-slithery

When the time comes to change skin, an oil, exuded between the coloured-body skin and the transparent epidermis, will separate the two layers, causing the body colour to become more dull or blueish, similarly, it will go into the area between the fixed eye cover and the scale, making the eyes look grey or blue, leading to what is known as “the blue”.

Vision and sensitivity

At this point, the snake has problems with vision and sensitivity, and will often go into hiding. When ready, it will rub the nose against an object that can split the skin, and within a short space of time, will exit the old skin, leaving behind its calling card.

I must thank one of our readers, Mike, for sparking this article, with a photo of a shed snake skin he found.

Pat McKrill is a long-time contributor to The Meander Chronicle. His column is sub-titled “Working together towards a peaceful co-existence with snakes.”

Contact Pat: Cell: 0833036958; email herpet@eastcoast.co.za