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By John S. Powers, Area Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Few creatures inspire a thrill or, for many, a chill more readily than snakes. The snake’s public relations woes are well documented in the writings of many early civilizations, most prominently in the Christian Bible. Though more common worldwide than most people realize, snakes tend to be secretive by nature and are relatively rarely seen. This “out of sight, out of mind” arrangement works out well for the majority of people the majority of the time. However, it can intensify the shock when “out of sight” is brought sharply to mind by indisputable evidence that snakes are among us and are often closer than we think.
Shed snake skins turn up in the darnedest places. Often, people are unsettled by finding an abandoned snake skin in the woods, field, garden or yard. Though unnerved, most are simply being reminded of an unpleasant fact. They know snakes are around, whether they like it or not, but they are comforted to know that the one who shed the skin in question is where it belongs--outside. Unnerved does not begin to describe the effect the discovery of that same dry, empty skin can have when it is found in the basement, in the attic, or, heaven help us, in the closet, under the bed, or in the back of the sock drawer.
While the phenomenon of animals shedding their skins is probably most commonly associated with snakes and, to a lesser extent, lizards, all animals shed their skins in some way. For most, it is a gradual process that leaves no obvious reminder. Humans, for instance, shed approximately 1.5 million dead skin cells each hour with our entire skins replaced about every 28 days. Among snakes, as among virtually all other animals, the outermost protective layers of cells (the dermis) are dead and no longer growing. Wear and tear combined with the need to accommodate an individual’s growth dictate that skin is periodically replaced. Snakes accomplish this process by shedding their skin all at one time.
The process of shedding (ecdysis) begins when a snake has outgrown its existing skin and has grown a new one underneath. When the new skin is complete, the old one begins to disconnect from it all over the snake’s body including the scales covering the eyes. During this process, the snake’s colors become dull and its eyes appear milky or bluish. Usually, the snake will not eat for several days while in this condition. When the old skin has completely separated from the new, a split will open at the tip of the snake’s nose, often helped along by rubbing against a rock or other rough surface. The old skin then peels back over the head and the snake wriggles out of it, leaving it inside out like a hastily removed sock. If the snake is healthy and environmental conditions (especially humidity) are right, its skin will come off in one piece, leaving the snake with clear vision, a bright new set of colors, and more room to grow.
The frequency that a snake sheds its skin is directly related to how fast it is growing. Newly hatched snakes may shed their skins up to twice a month. The frequency of shedding tends to decrease as the snake matures and its growth rate slows. Adult snakes usually shed once every two to four months So, what should you do when you encounter evidence that you have a living, growing, feeding, serpent in residence or nearby? Just stay calm and hope it spends more time outside than in. The bottom line is that nothing lasts forever--including the skins of living creatures.