If you enjoy taking hikes in the woods you’ve likely seen a long, tissue paper-like piece of skin that looks a lot like a snake. This is what’s left over after the reptile has gone through ecdysis. What? Ecdysis is just another word for shedding a layer of skin.
Some snakes shed or molt their skin in one long piece while others tear it in various places during the process. If you find discarded snakeskin in one whole piece, then consider yourself lucky.
It’s interesting to study or count the individual scales and maybe even get a good idea of the shape of the reptile’s head. If you’re familiar with the types of snakes living in your area, you may be able to guess what species it was by the appearance of the empty skin.
Check out some facts on how often snakes shed their skin. In addition, find out what time of year they shed, whether they eat any food while shedding, and why a snake’s eyes turn a milky blue during this time.
Why Do Snakes Shed?
Snakes shed their skin for a couple of reasons. For one, as a snake grows from a baby to an adult, its skin doesn’t grow along with it. So, as this reptile gets longer and wider, it has to molt to make way for another layer of skin to accommodate its larger body. A snake needs new skin just like kids need new clothes when they outgrow their old ones.
A second reason a snake sheds its skin is to get rid of parasites or mites. The parasites attach themselves to the skin, so when the skin is removed, most of the parasites go right along with it. This reptile is not able to wash these parasites off its body, so shedding is necessary.
When Do Snakes Shed?
There is not a specific time of year when all snakes molt. They can shed almost any time of year. Notably, young snakes shed their skin about once a week as they continue to grow and develop. In fact, the age of the reptile plays an important role in how often it sheds.
How Often Do Snakes Shed?
These reptiles shed their skin throughout their lives. Generally, they shed from three to six times per year. Younger snakes shed more often than older ones. This stands to reason because a young snake is growing and expanding more than an adult.
What is the Pre-Shedding Period?
Though the actual shedding process takes a relatively short time, snakes go through a pre-shedding stage. The python serves as a great example of what the pre-shedding period is like for most snakes.
A python’s pre-shedding stage can last from one to two weeks. Its skin takes on a dull color and sometimes its underside turns a shade of pink. This color change is an indication that shedding or ecdysis is about to happen. Soon, a python’s eyes turn a milky blue color. This milky blue color is a result of fluid buildup between the old skin and the new skin over its eyes. When its eyes turn this color, this reptile isn’t able to see very well. As a note, this is an example of why the shedding process is very stressful for a python or any other type of snake.
After the skin over its eyes is renewed, its eyes go back to normal color. Then, the reptile starts shedding the rest of its skin about 24 hours later.
The exact amount of time a snake takes to shed its skin depends on its species.
What Objects Does a Snake Use to Help it Shed?
Snakes in the wild rub their bodies against rocks, tree stumps, or even the sturdy stem of a plant. It moves its body over the surface of the object slowly sloughing off the skin. If a snake lives near a shed or other structure, it may use that as a way to remove its old skin.
A large snake like a copperhead is likely to choose a sturdy tree stump or fallen log it can press against in order to molt. Alternatively, a garter may need only a small rock to help it remove its dead skin.
When you find an empty skin in the woods, look around for a potential surface where the snake did its shedding work. It’s not always easy to find the place where a snake sheds its skin. Snakes sometimes slither along for several feet leaving their outgrown skin behind them as they go.
Why is the Shedding Process a Little Different for Rattlesnakes?
Of course, a rattlesnake sheds its skin for the same reasons other snakes do. But they have an additional reason that’s unique to them.
Newborn baby rattlesnakes don’t have rattles. So, a baby can shake its tail as much as it wants, it’s not going to make a sound! If you look closely at the rattle of an adult rattlesnake, you’ll see it’s made up of segments. These segments are made of keratin. After a baby rattlesnake has shed its skin for the first time, it’s left with the first segment of its rattle. After shedding its skin several times, a young rattlesnake will have all of the segments of its rattle.
Do Snakes Eat When Shedding Their Skin?
No matter what time of year a snake molts, it is not interested in eating either before or during the process. The reptile has lost its appetite or can even have a stomach ache due to this very stressful and uncomfortable process. After the reptile is completely finished with its molting, it will begin to eat once again.
Do Snakes Sleep When Shedding Their Skin?
These reptiles become very sluggish and lethargic right before and during the shedding process. They focus all of their attention and energy on getting rid of all of that old, outgrown skin.
What Are Some Misconceptions About the Shedding Process?
One misconception is snakes become aggressive during the shedding period. Not true. When a snake sheds its skin it feels vulnerable to predators. Oftentimes, these reptiles remain in familiar surroundings while they are shedding. If a snake were to bite someone while shedding, it’s due to the stress and uncertainty of the process.
A second misconception is when you see an empty skin, it means the snake is nearby. Not necessarily. The skin may belong to a reptile that has moved onto another area. Plus, sometimes a discarded skin can stay intact for weeks so it would have to be closely examined to determine how old it is.
Another common misconception is that snakes sometimes eat their old skin. This is not a regular practice of these reptiles. However, other types of reptiles are known to eat their old skin. A gecko is one example of the many lizards that eat their old skin.
Some people believe that a snake is completely blind when its eyes turn milky blue. This is not true. Though this reptile’s eyesight is dimmed for a short time, it is still able to see. This means it’s not completely helpless while shedding its old skin.
What Can an Owner Do to Help a Pet Snake When It Sheds?
Snakes go through ecdysis whether they are living in the wild or kept as pets. The first thing an owner can do to help a pet snake is to learn as much as possible about the molting process. Imagine not knowing why your pet’s eyes have turned milky blue!
A reptile that’s shedding should have access to water. Put some water in a shallow dish so the snake can moisten its skin. This helps in the shedding process by loosening the skin. Some owners may even see their pet coiled up inside the shallow bowl before the shedding begins.
Be sure to have some items a snake can rub against. This can be rocks, stones, or a piece of driftwood that’s been thoroughly cleaned. Make it as easy as possible for the reptile to move back and forth past these objects inside its cage.
Keep in mind this is a stressful time for a snake. So, it’s best not to handle it during the pre-shedding period or when it’s shedding. The snake is likely to hide a lot during this time, anyway. This is a clear signal it wants to be left alone. It helps to have a box or small shelter inside the cage where the snake can go when it wants to hide.
It’s a smart idea to keep the cage in a quiet room when a snake is shedding. This can contribute to soothing the snake as it goes through this process.