The fact that snakes can shed their skin has always fascinated those with a curious mind, especially children. There is just something about an animal that can slide out of its skin once or twice a month that fires the imagination.
But while snake shedding is the common phrase used to describe this process, it’s not entirely accurate. In truth, snakes do not shed their skin. They shed a layer of … well, shed. They retain their skin after shedding (obviously), and their skin is usually much more vibrant immediately after the shed.
When a snake sheds, it only loses the outermost layer of its skin, keeping the “skin proper” very much intact. Despite this technicality, and for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the process by its common terminology (shedding skin) throughout this article.
I don’t say all of this to demystify the process of a snake shedding its skin. No matter how much you know about it, the process of snake shedding is always a wonder to behold. I only say this to educate readers on the reason why snakes shed their skin and how the process really works.
Snake Shedding is Also Called Ecdysis
Ecdysis is the scientific term for shedding of the. In addition to snakes, other animals shed their skin. These include a variety of insects, arthropods and lizards. This process is also commonly referred to sloughing or molting the skin. With snakes, however, the word “shedding” is used most often.
Why Snakes Shed Their Skin
Basically, a snake will shed its skin to allow for continued growth. The skin of a snake is different from the skin of a mammal (including us) in that it does not grow as the animal grows. When we get bigger with age, our skin grows right along with us. But snake skin has a limited capacity for growth and enlargement. Thus, when a snake outgrows the skin it’s in, it simply sheds the outer layer and starts fresh.
Do Snakes Ever Stop Shedding Their Skin?
A snake will shed its skin as long as it’s growing, and snakes grow all through their lives. Thus, a snake will never stop shedding until death. With that being said, the frequency of snake shedding will certainly change during the snake’s life. Younger snakes grow at a faster rate than mature snakes (as is the case with most other species). So a young, fast-growing snake will shed more frequently than an adult snake of the same species.
For example, I have a gopher snake that used to shed about every other week as it was growing from baby snake to juvenile. Now that same snake is nearly seven feet long — a mature adult. And while he is still growing (and always will be), his rate of growth has slowed down considerably. These days, the snake only sheds about once every 45 days or so.
Problems When Shedding
Snakes sometimes have trouble shedding their skins, both in the wild and in captivity. In captivity, it’s usually not a big deal when a snake has trouble shedding, because the owner can use several techniques to help the pet snake complete the shed. These techniques include soaking the snake, misting the snake, increasing the room’s humidity, providing a moisture box, etc.
In the wild, however, the problem of an incomplete shed can more severe because there are no humans / owners to help out. When a wild snake has trouble completing its shed, the sheds can accumulate. This can lead to many problems, especially around the eyes. If a snake retains multiple “eye caps” from previous sheds, it can lead to blindness. And in nature, a blind snake is usually a dead snake.
In most cases, problematic sheds are due to a lack of moisture and/or dehydration. For example, if you were to keep a tropical snake species in Arizona, the snake would have trouble adjusting to the much drier air. Unless you did something to compensate for the lack of humidity (like using a humidifier or providing a moisture retreat), the tropical snake would likely have trouble shedding its skin completely.
In the wild, snakes can also become dehydrated during periods of lower than normal rainfall. The result would be the same as it would for captive snakes — problematic shedding and other hydration-related health issues.