Characteristics of Reptiles

Olawunmi Omosanya - Tue, 16th April, 2019 @ 20:32: PM

What are Reptiles?

Reptiles are vertebrate (animals with backbone) that belong to the class reptilia. In Latin, reptile means creeping animals. It is believed that reptiles evolved from a certain vertebrate called reptiliomorph, more than 300 million years ago. They were initially aquatic animals and with time they became adapted to the terrestrial habitat (land). Some reptiles hibernates while others brumate. During hibernation, an organism stays in a sleep-like state without food for a long period of time, surviving from its fat reserve. Brumation on the other hand is similar to hibernation except that the animals are neither asleep nor live off their fat reserve, rather their metabolic processes become very reduced resulting in the sluggishness of such animals.

In this article, we will look into the various characteristics or features of reptiles.


  • All reptiles are Vertebrates

An animal is said to be a vertebrate if it has a backbone. Reptiles, fishes, toads, birds and mammals are all vertebrates. The backbone of reptiles begins from the lower end of the skull and runs throughout their body length. Running inside the backbone is the spinal cord which constitutes a part of the central nervous system.


  • They are cold blooded animals or Poikilotherms (Poikilothermic animals) or Ectotherms (Ectothermic animals)

Reptiles cannot physiologically regulate their body temperature. To explain this, think of humans who have got a defined body temperature of about 36.5oC. This stability in temperature is made possible in humans via a process called homeostasis, regardless of where they may find themselves (cold or warm conditions). Read our article on homeostasis HERE. In the case of reptiles, the weather condition determines their temperature. When it’s warm, their temperature increases and when cold, it decreases. When the weather becomes too hot, they tend to move into shady places or water in order to lower it. Their body temperature is therefore dependent on their environment.

Note: Although most enzymes work best at a specific temperature, that isn’t the case in reptiles. Their metabolic enzymes can work efficiently over a wide range of temperatures.


  • Their bodies are covered in Scales or Scutes

Unlike mammals whose bodies are covered in hair/fur or birds whose bodies are covered in feathers, all reptiles have their bodies covered in scales or scutes which protects them from the dangers of their external environment. The chelonians which includes reptiles like turtles and tortoises in addition to having scales also possesses a hard protective shell (called carapases) that gives an extra protection to their upper bodies. The scales are composed of keratin and can either be tubular or ossified in appearance. In addition to providing protection and movement, the scales prevent loss of water to the environment and this is one reason while some reptiles can survive in deserts. The scutes are different from scales because give more protection and appear more like a dermal armor. They are found in tortoises, turtles and crocodiles.


  • They are mostly oviparous while some may be ovoviviparous or viviparous

Most reptiles are oviparous animals. This imply that they lay eggs which are covered in shell. A few are ovoviviparous (that is, the eggs remain in the mother’s womb until they are ready to hatch) while others are viviparous, meaning that the young ones are born alive. Some reptiles will incubate their eggs either by laying on them or by burying them below the earth until they hatch. Some will look after their young ones but only for a short period of time.


  • They undergo moulting of Ecdysis

Moulting is a process where animals shed their skin. This process or moulting is apparent in insects and reptiles. They remove the uppermost layer of their skin each time it gets worn out. Parasites on their skins are also removed through this process. Lizard shed their skins in patches while crocodiles shed the individual scales.


Other characteristics of reptiles includes

They Respirate is via the Lungs.

They have three chambered heart.

Most are tetrapods (have four legs). Snakes are exceptions.

Most are carnivores with the exception of turtles and tortoises which feed on plant.

They are not hermaphrodites; that is, the male and females are separate.

Topics in Biology

Introduction to Biology Types of Arterial Disorders Homeostasis and Negative Feedback Mechanism Characteristics of Reptiles Characteristics of Protists Amazing facts in Biology


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