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.

 

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When a Little Distance Makes Sense

 

As if to emphasize the appropriateness of the sign’s message, this American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) had decided to take its ease on a nearby bank at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

From a slightly different perspective, its size was impressive, and its awareness of its human visitor detectable in a just-barely-slitted eye. (If you enlarge the photo, the slit in its eye will become detectable.)

As I moved around for a slightly better view of the impassive reptile, its eye finally opened, and it seemed to be running through a mental checklist. Even though it didn’t stir, I decided I would, and I made for the boardwalk.

From my new vantage point, I discovered that the alligator wasn’t alone. Obviously a female, she was surrounded by youngsters whose size suggested they still were less than a year old.  Able to explore the world independently, they remained young enough to crave their mother’s considerable protection; a dozen or so were staying close by her side.

After watching my movements for a few minutes, one youngster decided to snuggle up even more closely to its mother’s foot: for all the world like a human child running back to its parent for security.

Its braver siblings seemed eager to move around at the pond’s edge, perhaps hunting for insects, tadpoles, frogs, or small fish for their afternoon snack.

Despite their size and reputation for ferocity, mama alligators are diligent and loving parents. For at least the first year of her babies’ lives, she protects them as fiercely as she protected her nest, and juvenile alligators will call to her for protection when they feel threatened.

About six to eight inches long as hatchlings, the young often ride on their mother’s back as she swims, or sun themselves there when she’s at rest.

A different mother and babies, seen from the same boardwalk

Once young alligators reach 4 feet in length, they’re considered virtually invulnerable in the wild, except to humans and larger alligators. Separating from their pods, they begin to live independent lives.

This one, which had retreated to a spot beneath the Brazoria refuge’s pavilion during a time of especially high water, was almost exactly four feet long. His (?) willingness to pause beneath the pavilion steps made his size easy to determine.

There’s no question he was the most beautiful alligator I’ve seen. Free of mud and more colorful than older gators, he was easy to photograph from above as he moved farther onto the land. It was an unusual opportunity, and a memorable one.

 

 

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Click any image for greater size and detail.

Turtle, Times Two

 

Late on Christmas afternoon, two turtles had trundled up this tiny snag to enjoy the sunshine and the gift of an especially warm day.

Cold-blooded, turtles control their body temperature by basking in the sun to absorb warmth and UV rays. Heat is radiated to their bodies from their shells, but they often will stretch out their legs to collect additional heat. In the photo below, you can see how far their legs are extended, and how they’ve widened their feet to increase the surface area even more.

I usually see turtles lying prone on logs, but these seemed comfortable at about a 60 degree angle. It’s clearly a favored spot. I’ve seen this pair of what I presume to be red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) on the same snag three different times, but this is the first time I’ve caught their reflection in the water.

 

Comments always are welcome.