Fallen needles from longleaf pines and fresh, recently unfurled ferns were the order of the day: a pleasing palette of brown and green. When the unexpected flash of white caught my attention, I wondered if I were seeing trash: an odd experience in a place where signs of human presence usually are limited to stretches of repaired boardwalk or botanical research markers.
In fact, I had spotted trash, but of a very natural sort. A green anole, one of our most common lizards, was in the process of shedding its skin. The process, known as ‘ecdysis,’ differs from reptile to reptile. Snakes leave their skin in one piece; turtles shed the scutes that comprise their shell individually; alligators lose their large scales one at a time; but lizards, including the green anole, peel away old skin in sections.
Prior to shedding, anoles become less active and change their color to a dull brown, making the pattern along their spines easier to see.
As the shedding process progresses, anoles need moisture to keep the dead skin from drying too quickly and adhering to their bodies. Areas like the tips of the toes can be especially problematic. If that skin fails to shed along with that on the rest of the foot, the remaining skin may shrink, causing constricted blood flow and toe loss. For this anole, the same humidity that I found annoying was a real benefit.
Most anoles stop eating while they shed, or cut back on their diet substantially. But the process takes energy, and a little snack never hurts; for the anole, the snack closest at hand is its own skin.
Filled with vitamins and minerals, the shed skin helps to reactivate the digestive system, provides nutrients, and also reduces the possibility that bits of leftover skin might alert a predator to the anole’s presence.
I thought at first that this one was using its mouth solely as a handy tool for skin removal, but I soon realized that those bits of skin weren’t being allowed to fall into the ferns or onto the ground.
While I watched, the creature tugged, nibbled, and gnawed its way through nearly all the skin on its body, leaving only its tail and toes to be tended to.
By the time it had finished consuming the last large bits of skin, it was ready to move deeper into the ferns: presumably to finish cleaning its tail and toes before the Saturday night social began.