What Are Reptile Scales Made Of

Have you ever wondered what a reptile’s scales are made of?

When touching a reptile, have you been surprised by the feel of its skin?

Do you ever question why your reptile periodically sheds its scales?

The skin of a reptile is vastly different from many other animals because it has scales, which may cause you to wonder:

What are reptile scales made of?

A reptile’s scales are made of a strong protein called keratin formed from the epidermis or the protective outer layer of a reptile’s skin.

what are reptile scales made of

What Scales Are Made Of and Their Many Forms

Scales are a defining characteristic of reptiles.

Though it is commonly thought a reptile’s scales are its skin, this is a misconception.

Scales form a protective layer around the skin.

Keratin, the protein used to form a reptile’s scales, is the same protein found in human fingernails.

This protein creates a strong, durable layer around a reptile’s skin for protection.

The scales of a reptile are formed from the inner or outer layers of a reptile’s skin.

The kind of scales a reptile has will depend on the species of reptile.

Some scales are flat and smooth, some overlap, and other scales look more like an outgrowth or bump on the reptile’s skin.

There are four main species of reptile, each with their own variety of scales on their body.

Turtles and Crocodiles

Turtles and crocodiles have special scales called scutes.

These scales are formed from the deeper layers of a reptile’s skin and are thicker than scales formed from the epidermis, or upper layers of skin.

To the touch, these scales better resemble the texture of a bone or horn.

A turtles shell is covered in scutes.

While a turtle never grows out of its shell, the scutes on the surface of the shell do shed to make room for new ones.

The raised bumps or spikes down a crocodile’s back and tail are also scutes.

When it’s time to get rid of old scales, crocodiles will shed them individually.


Lizard scales come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the species.

They may even have several different kinds of scales throughout their body.

Some lizards have tubular scales, which are rounded or lumpy and look more like an outgrowth.

Lizards also have flat, overlapping scales.

Some lizards also have modified scales called lamellae.

These scales look more like hairs and grow on the bottoms of the feet of many species of geckos.

Lamellae allow them to grip and climb various surfaces safely.


Snakes are entirely covered in scales.

The scales along their belly are flat and plate-like to help them move smoothly.

They also have a special scale over their eyes.

Since snakes do not have eyelids, this transparent scale protects a snake’s eyes from dust and dirt.

What Makes Reptile Scales So Special?

Most of the time, when people hear think about reptiles, the first thing they usually think of is a reptile’s scales.

Scales do more than help identify animals as a reptile, though, because they help reptiles survive in many ways.

Scales Trap in Moisture

Contrary to what one might think when looking at these creatures, the scaly skin of a reptile is not slimy or moist, but dry.

This is because scales help reptiles retain moisture inside their bodies by trapping water under the scales.

The overlapping structure of scales on many reptiles also allows these creatures to move freely from water to land because the scales form watertight armor, keeping them from getting dehydrated.

Scales Provide Protection

You might be surprised to know scales are translucent.

A reptile’s color comes from its skin, not its scales.

The scales allow the color to show through.

The coloring of a reptile keeps it protected.

Some reptiles have colors to help them blend into their surroundings, while other reptiles have colors to warn predators to stay away.

Scales are also tough and protect reptiles from the elements as well as predators.

Scales make it hard for predators to grab or bite reptiles.

This outer layer also protects reptiles from harmful UV rays and abrasions as they walk, crawl, or slither across rough terrain.

Scales Help Reptiles Move

Many reptiles have overlapping scales to aid in their movement and flexibility.

A snake, for example, has flat plate-like scales on its belly.

These plates grip the ground and create friction to help the snake get where it wants to go.

Why Reptiles Lose Their Scales

It is common knowledge snakes shed their skin, but they are not the only reptiles who do.

All reptiles lose their scales periodically throughout their lives.

The process is called molting.

Molting happens when a reptile sheds its older scales for a new set of scales underneath the old ones.

When snakes molt, their old scales generally are shed in one piece.

The old scales begin to break free around the mouth, and the snake slithers its way out.

When lizards, crocodiles, or turtles molt, their scales flake off in separate pieces.

Some lizards with longer bodies may shed their scales in one piece.

A reptile generally molts a couple of times a year.

Younger reptiles will molt more frequently as they grow.

Regular molting is a healthy process for reptiles, but irregular molting may be a sign of a health concern.

To keep your reptile’s skin and scales healthy, make sure their enclosure has the proper lighting, and maintain appropriate temperature and humidity levels.

Feed your reptile a diet rich in the nutrients recommended for your species.

Also, be sure to limit the amount of stress your reptile experiences.


Reptiles are fascinating creatures with a unique skin.

Because reptile scales are made of keratin, they form a strong, flexible, and protective outer layer around a reptile’s skin.

The kinds of scales on reptiles are varied, but all of them aid in keeping your reptile safe and protected.

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