Off With the Old, On With the New

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) in the process of shedding its skin

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.


Comments always are welcome.

84 thoughts on “Off With the Old, On With the New

    1. It certainly was a surprise to me. I wonder if anyone’s written The Secret Life of Lizards? There might be more material for such a book than we know.

  1. This is excellent documentation of an anole’s skin-shedding. I’ve never seen it.

    Your mention of the technical Greek-based term ecdysis couldn’t help but remind me of H.L. Mencken’s humorous coinage in 1940 of ecdysiast as a highfalitin’ word for ‘a stripper.’

    1. I had quite a list of potential titles for this post that played off Mencken’s usage, but decided to forgo them for something that wouldn’t require explanation to be understandable. Still, it tickled me to be able to tuck ‘ecdysis’ into the post.

      To be honest, I had no idea that anoles shed their skin. I’ve never seen an iguana shedding, for that matter, nor heard people who live around them talk about it. I’ve always assumed that anoles missing the ends of their tails were victims of predators, but now I’m wondering whether incomplete shedding could be responsible for tail loss as well as toe loss.

  2. What a great photo story, Linda! Man, that must feel great, to shed your old skin and start fresh. It reminded of grade school, painting our hands with Elmer’s glue or rubber cement, and peeling it off when it dried. But not eating it, as far as I remember.
    “Ecdysis” seemed vaguely familiar, which surprised me, but when I looked it up, I saw H. L. Mencken’s “ecdysiast” (a fancy name for a stripper). I then looked up the disorder, when humans start gnawing on themselves like that, eating skin, but it’s different, “dermatophagia.”
    I’m visiting my folks for a few weeks, while we’re working from home, and my father wanted to suggest, if you run into this anole, and decide it’s a male, you could name it James Brown, for the Godfather of Soul, the guy who sang “Give Me Some Skin”!

    1. I’d forgotten about the Elmer’s glue trick. The first thing that came to my mind was peeling off a sunburn. The anole’s shed skin resembles both of those amusements in one respect; if you look closely at the photos, you can see that it holds the texture of the lizard’s skin in the same way that Elmer’s could ‘lift’ a fingerprint.

      Mencken’s still a favorite. An anthology I have describes him thusly: “A master of invective, Mencken is as much a pioneer as a mischief-maker; a lifelong enemy of academicians and demagogues who has used his superb vocabulary to champion the unknown and the neglected.” I ended up reading “Downfall of a Revolutionary” last night, and by the time I’d gotten a page into it, I realized that its style reminded me of someone else I read regularly. Yes, that would be you!

      I don’t remember that James Brown song, although I was familiar with the expression as a kid. This article, which highlights several ‘skin’ expressions, says ‘give me some skin’ originated in the 1940s; Brown released the song in 1977. It’s energetic, to say the least, but what really tickled me is that it’s from the album titled Mutha’s Nature.

      1. I didn’t know that expression went that far back, I’ve only ever heard it in old movies from the ’70’s.
        Wow I’ll take that as a real compliment, to remind you of Mencken.

        1. I’m glad you took it as a compliment, because that’s how it was meant. Your writing can be a little slapdash, true — but it’s funny, and complex, and filled with Mencken-like allusions and connections. Sometimes reading your posts can be like playing Pachinko, but I happen to love Pachinko!

  3. My word, what an amazing sequence to capture with your camera. I am filled with both admiration and envy. Well done!!

    1. Thanks, David. I was quite surprised that the anole stayed put, but since I stopped as soon as I saw it and hardly moved after that, it may have felt less threatened. Besides, it had a mission to accomplish, and running would have left bits of skin behind as a trail for potential predators to follow.

    1. If I’ve learned anything about roaming around in the natural world, it’s that you never can predict what’s waiting around the corner. This was one of the best examples, ever.

  4. What an amazing sight. Your images are excellent at capturing the action, especially the lizard actually eating its own shed skin.

    Thanks for sharing, Linda. No doubt at the time, you were really excited to capture this process. I know I would be.

    1. As with birds, it’s sometimes best to shoot in bursts, and hope for the best. It worked out well enough in this instance. To be honest, I wasn’t at all excited in the moment, partly because I had no idea what I was looking at. At such times, I just try to get the best images I can, so I can sort out what I’ve seen after the fact.

      1. I often see things in my images on the large 27″ screen that I never saw at the time of shooting. I’ve been photographing those fast-moving wrens of mine in bursts, but its still a ‘hit or miss’ sort of luck that pervades my efforts.

        Some days, I take 50 photos and they’re all blurred, so I think it also depends on how tired I am and how still I hold the heavy long telephoto lens/camera. I must say its a lot easier photographing from my desk and leaning my elbows on the desktop though.

        1. I don’t doubt that fatigue plays a role. Even when I’m only carrying my 18-135mm, there are times when I know I might as well stop, because I’m losing focus in every sense of the phrase.

    1. Isn’t that something? The behavior makes perfect sense in so many ways, but I never would have predicted it. I suppose the fact that snakes leave their skins behind might predispose us to assume all shedding reptiles do the same. Obviously not!

    1. Recycling at its finest, don’t you think? I’m so glad I was able to get a photo of this one actually munching away. It’s one thing to say, “They eat their shed skin” and quite another to see one doing it.

  5. Amazing photo series, Linda! I see a lot of anoles and other lizards around here, but I’ve never witnessed this. Thanks. I had no idea they eat their skin.

    1. I certainly was surprised. At the time, I wasn’t certain whether the behavior was typical, but there was no question what he doing. I’ve decided we see shedding less often because they need more humid or damp conditions to ease the process. Most of the time, I see anoles sunning themselves on rocks or concrete — the very sort of place they’d avoid when it comes time to shed.

  6. Amazing sequence of pics! Nicely done. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, and a nice observation, not mistaking it for trash. Somehow, I never knew that lizards shed their skin. Being a reptile, that should have been obvious, but I never thought about it. Learned something new…thanks!

    1. I just mentioned to another reader something that hadn’t yet occurred to me when I wrote the post. We probably don’t see this behavior as often as it’s happening because the anoles seek out damp, humid conditions when it’s time to shed. I usually see them sunning themselves or hunting on rocks or concrete — the very places they’d avoid when it’s shedding time.

      As for right place, right time: I’ve often thought there are two ways to go fishing for photos. You can go with a rod, reel, and lure, or you can go with a cast net. A rod and reel may make a trophy more likely, but you never know what you’ll find in that net.

  7. Waste not, want not, I suppose, but, still, ugh. The new skin would blend in with ferns and pine needles quite nicely, I think.

    1. There’s nothing like fresh feathers or fresh skin. It’s always fun to see any creature in those fresh, new colors — even if the colors are more subtle. As for blending in, I suspect I wouldn’t have seen this little guy had it not been for that old, white skin. Who knows how many more were lurking around in those ferns?

  8. Magnificent Linda, incredible, and they eat it too! It’s amazing how much wildlife you have around you. Great sequence and chapters in a lizards life.

    1. I wondered if those invasive iguanas in your state shed in the same way, and it turns out that they do. I’ve also discovered there are sites galore detailing all this for people who keep lizards as pets, since they have to be concerned with things like maintaining the proper humidity levels.

      I couldn’t count the number of anoles and geckos around my place; the crop of babies this year was remarkable. I’m going to start paying more attention to places kept moist by the sprinkler systems. Even city lizards have to shed!

      1. The larger lizards shed the same but don’t have the dexterity to eat all that skin off as the anoles do. The black market for exotic pets is largely responsible for not educating the public as to what exotic lizards require.

        Believe it or not, right now there are about two or three major pet stores chains in this country trafficking exotic lizards. I’m not going to get into a debate here, but just letting you know that this is going on, and that this the reason why these animals keep on escaping into the wild, reproducing, and then getting killed.

  9. Like the others, I’m amazed and fascinated by your superb images. A particular piece of music is running in my mind, as I’m sure it was for you also.

    1. When I’m engaged in photographing something, nothing’s in my mind apart from considerations directly related to the camera and such. I may not be able to focus on my subject as well as I’d like, but I sure can focus on the process! So, there wasn’t any song running through my mind then, and it even took me a while to figure out which one you were thinking of. Now, I remember. There was some good music in those days.

  10. I have observed this behavior several times when we visited my parents, who lived in Florida for many years after my dad’s retirement. Anoles aren’t hard to catch when you’re an agile, observant, and naturephile youngster, and I can remember being tempted to help them with their shedding of the old skin, but I don’t think I ever was able to put this little whim into practice. Knowing what I do now, it’s surely better to leave them to their instincts because of the extra nutrition the exfoliated skin provides for them. Another beautiful sequence, Linda!

    1. From what I’ve read on various sites devoted to the care and feeding of lizards as pets, helping with the process isn’t recommended, simply because an over-enthusiastic human (especially youngsters) may pull off skin that’s not quite ready to slough. And, as you point out, what we see as trash — that yucky old skin — may be the anole version of chocolate cake. Which of us would like our dessert pulled away just as we’re getting ready to indulge?

      Your ability to catch them is admirable. I often find them on my car, especially around the windshield and wipers, and try to get them off before I take off. Living in a new spot might be fine, but getting there at 45 mph or better could be a little harrowing.

    1. Now that I know this happens, I’m hoping to see it again. At least I know where I have a better chance of witnessing it. In the middle of a concrete patio or on a sidewalk certainly isn’t the spot, given the need for dampness and humidity.

    1. Amazing, indeed. I’ve always thought anoles were cute as can be, but it turns out that their behaviors are as interesting as they are cute: both are smile-producing.

    1. You’re just the person who can answer my question! Where do you see them when they’re in the process of shedding? In foliage, or in shadier, damper areas of your garden? I’ve decided one reason I’ve never seen the behavior is because they need humidity and moisture to help them along in the process. I usually see them sunning on walks or concrete, or hunting on the sides of building — exactly the places they wouldn’t want to go for shedding.

      1. My yard is full of green and brown anoles. They seem to peel wherever they are. I have seen several little ones peeling the last few days. I normally have the sprinklers on my beds everyday, so there is always moisture, at least in the morning. My beds are tightly planted, so it is like a little jungle. Copperheads are like mummies when they molt and just stay in one place, not necessarily hiding.

        1. Suspicions confirmed. As a gardener, you’ve created exactly the sort of environment where I found this little guy: dense, damp, and secure. No wonder you have so many.

  11. we have a lot of anoles around here and they are one of my favorite subjects for little sculptures. surely I’ve known they shed but I didn’t know they eat their skin. the young ones are skittish but the older ones will usually let me take their picture.

    1. Have you ever shown an anole on your blog? Maybe you have, but before I met you. They’re so cute and appealing; I think they’d make wonderful sculptures. (Although, maybe not when they’re ‘a-peeling.’) This year, we’ve had more young ones running around here than I’ve ever seen before. Some of them aren’t even two inches long, but they can run like crazy. I keep telling them to eat lots of mosquitoes.

  12. While it’s nice that anoles clean up after themselves, I must admit I feel sorry for somebody who has to eat their own shed skin. Can you imagine doing that — say, after a sunburn when you’re all a peely mess?!? Come to think about it, this poor critter doesn’t exactly look happy about doing it either. To me, he has a look of resignation on his face — kind of like he knows what’s expected of him, but isn’t exactly pleased over it. Maybe he’s doing the shelter-at-home thing, too?!?

    1. Well, the good news is that we don’t have to resort to skin sandwiches, but it seems to work for the anoles. Apart from nutrition, I think it’s clever of them to use the practice as a defensive maneuver. “Leave no trace” is a good slogan for lizards as well as hikers and campers.

      I thought he looked rather pleased with himself. It must feel good to get that old skin off, and be able to move freely again. Granted, it’s a chore — sort of like laundry — but once done, it’s done: at least, until the next time!

  13. Wow — these are fantastic. I learned the word “ecdysiast” from the musical, Gypsy (after whom Gypsy was named) when Gypsy Rose Lee is doing her act and says that she is an ecdysiast, one that shed’s its skin. “In other parlance, a stripper.” I never knew that lizards did this nor would I ever imagine you would be lucky enough to see this and patient enough to go through the whole thing! Let the David Rose music begin now!

    1. I do wonder how long the entire process takes, since it was well underway before I came across the little guy. I hung around for 20 or 30 minutes before he disappeared, so it could well take a couple of hours, or even more. Like birds building a nest, I’m sure he never thought, “Isn’t this process ever going to be over?”, but he certainly seemed to be focused, and ready to finish it up as soon as he could.

      It never occurred to me that this post would lead to your Gypsy, but there we are. I have to ask: did she enjoy hunting lizards? That would be too perfect.

  14. I didn’t know they shed their skins but should have since they are related to snakes. You were meant to bear witness to such an event and share with us. Thank you. Life is a great big school and we learn something new every single day. Thanks for paying attention.

    Be well.

    1. I often think of the world as the largest-ever one-room schoolhouse. Since I’ve started roaming around with my camera, there never has been a day that I didn’t find something wonderful: common, perhaps, but still wonderful. As for paying attention, you’ve reminded me of those wonderful lines from Mary Oliver:

      Instructions for living a life.
      Pay attention.
      Be astonished.
      Tell about it.

  15. Each day I visit our back yard with several cameras, walking clockwise, seeking. I am rarely disappointed, and if I am, it is my own fault for missing the obvious.

    I miss Mary. I am fond of the poem and her observations. Thank you.

    1. I went looking to see if this critter lived in your country, and I was very surprised to see that England has only three species of lizard: the common lizard (Lacerta vivipara), the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), which isn’t very common, and the slow worm (Anguis fragilis), which is legless. The one you’re most likely to see in your garden is the common lizard, and yes, indeed — it sheds just like this fellow! If you notice lizards around, keep an eye on the wet/damp/thickly vegetated places and you might see a shedding, too!

  16. I adore the green anole. I think it is my favorite lizard and I have had many in my yard but I have only seen one this year. I keep thinking how fortunate you were to have found this one and to have been able to photograph this wonder. I have never observed any anole shedding and I am envious of your pics here. I did post several years back of some of the lizards in my yard but they just are few and far between this year. I have seen the roadrunner in my yard and some jays so maybe they are keeping the population down. I think the anole is very personable and at times I have gotten fairy close to them as I talked to them to tell them how pretty they are.

    1. It makes sense to me that the roadrunners and other predators would be keeping your lizard population down. On the other hand, we seem to have more in my area just now than I’ve ever seen; every size, and at least three species. Like you, I favor the anole. They’re just cute, and they don’t seem to be as skittish as some of the others.

      To be honest, I wasn’t sure at first what was happening when I saw this one shedding. Once I got a clue, it all fell into place, but it certainly was a sight to see. Occasionally I’ll have the experience of seeing a particular flower I’ve never come across, and then they seem to be everywhere. Maybe that will happen with shedding lizards, too!

  17. What an amazing sighting and photo capture, Linda! Just wonder how you came across this. You must be looking very intensely when you take your nature walks. I can see the Dillard in you.

    1. I’m not sure I’m looking intensely when I’m out and about. Instead of focusing, I tend to let my vision broaden, roaming over the landscape until something — a movement, a color, that little ‘something’ that doesn’t seem usual — catches my attention. I really can’t explain it. There have been times when something as small as a ladybug or a fasciated plant has caught my attention even while I’m driving. My ophthalmologist says there’s nothing wrong with my peripheral vision.

  18. This was delightful, informative, and beautifully illustrated. I miss reading your posts. I need to get more organised; shed a little of my old self and make a fresh start.

    1. All of us make fresh starts, all the time. Sometimes I make them daily: sometimes, more often! I’m glad you enjoyed this. It certainly was quite an event to witness, and it pleases me that you stopped by to witness it, too.

    1. I do wonder if you have the same common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) that lives in England. If you do, you might well see this, since they shed their skin in the same way. It certainly is something to see. Now that I know which conditions the lizards prefer for the shedding process, I’m hoping I’ll see it again.

      1. I do live in England now (Suffolk), having moved down from Scotland a few years ago – so maybe I’ll see a lizard here. (Haven’t so far…seeing one shedding its skin would be a huge bonus!)

  19. Great collection of photos there, Linda, and something I have never seen. (Although I used to pull my skin off after a sunburn, back when I was a kid.) I think it might give new meaning to doing your toenails. –Curt

    1. Peeling those sunburns was one of the first things that came to mind, Curt. I did it too, but out of sight of my mother, who’d yell, “Didn’t I tell you to stop that?” I think the photo showing the lizard tending to its toenails is my favorite of the group. Pondering your comment, I decided that lizards have pedi-pedies rather than mani-pedies.

  20. Great find and natural history lesson for the rest of us. Thanks. Of course, I won’t see an anole shedding its skin here but I have come across snakeskin like most everyone. It was fascinating to watch the process through your images.
    The term ecdysis made me look to see if it was the root for ecdysiast which it is and of course in scanning upward I see that, as I expected, Steve already commented to that.

    1. And not only Steve, but Rob and Jeanie, too. I’d forgotten that Jeanie’s previous cat, Gypsy, was named for the Gypsy of Broadway fame, so it made sense for Jeanie to think of ecdysiasts as soon as she saw the word.

      As I’ve already mentioned, it was a great natural history lesson for me, too — once I figured out what I’d seen. The camera’s a great tool of discovery. I tend to alternate between “Wow! Look at that!” and “Huh. What in the world is that?”

    1. Every now and then I find myself returning to particular photos just because I can’t believe how much there is to see. This set certainly deserved a little extra attention. The shedding toes are great, but it’s also interesting that the shed skin doesn’t lose the pattern of the skin underneath. Without the camera, I never would have noticed those things.

    1. Yes, well… It’s not an appetizing thought to us, but the anole profits from his odd habit, so good for him. I was quite surprised to find how lizard-poor you are up in your state, but then I remembered: cold and snow aren’t so good for cold-blooded creatures. Still you have only three skinks and three lizards. I could send you an anole for the summer, like sending a kid to camp.

    1. As far as I’ve been able to determine, they all shed their skin, and in multiple pieces, rather than in a single piece, like a snake. Your native lizard, Lacerta vivipara (now Zootoca vivipara)sheds its skin prior to mating (usually in April or May) but I haven’t been able to find any information on whether it eats the shed skin. I suspect I would have found a mention of it if it did.

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