Scale it back!

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February 15, 2021

Snakes, like other reptiles, are covered in scales. They protect the snake, help it move, and aid in camouflage. You have something similar to scales yourself, your fingernails! Made of keratin, hard but a little flexible, your fingernail protects your nail bed just like a scale protects a snake’s body. 

We’re exploring the different types of scales we can observe on a snake’s body and how those scales are unique.

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    Ventral Scales

    Ventral, or belly, scales are large and long and help a snake move. Take a closer look. These wide and long scales act like the tread on the bottom of a boot and allow a snake to slither over rocks, logs, or leaves without slipping. Check out this video from the National Science Foundation to see how snakes use their scales to move.

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    Dorsal Scales

    Dorsal, or back scales, can have different shapes, sizes and colors depending on the snake. In fact, you can even tell the difference between two similar species of snakes that look similar by counting the number of scales!

    Notice how these scales on Blackstar the gray rat snake are almond shaped and interlock with one another. Some snakes, like Blackstar, have keeled scales. These scales have ridges in the middle of them that could help them climb trees. Other snakes, like the smooth greensnake, have smooth scales that could help them glide through vegetation.

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    Rostral Scale

    The “rostral scale,” or the nose scale, can be very unique. In fact, the rostral scale is where the hognose snake gets its name! Look how it upturns slightly, resembling a pig nose. It helps the snake burrow through sand and soil.

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    Rattle Scale

    The “rattle” is also a special scale. Found on the tails of rattlesnakes like the massasauga, the rattle is formed from loosely linked chambers that rattle when shaken to create the warning sound we can hear when the snake is disturbed. Only the bottom of the rattle is attached to the tip of the tail, and a new section of the rattle is formed each time the snake sheds its scales!

    CHAS HERP-4469, Crotalus totonacus, Totonacan rattlesnake specimen from the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ scientific collections. Collected by R.F. Harvey from Veracruz, Mexico on 5/1/1933.

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