The idea of 'scales' often brings to mind images of slimy, unpleasant creatures that creep, crawl and slither. Certainly, we humans would hate to think of our own skin as scaly. But have you ever considered the idea that the hard, horned skin of reptiles might actually be aesthetically appealing? If you have, you're in good company: experts believe that the vivid patterning found on snakes inspired early art, not to mention the tessellated mosaics that feature in Islamic art. And then there are those for whom reptile scales have an effect akin to looking at a 'magic eye painting,' conjuring up pictures of landscapes, and – through the symmetry of their patterns and bold colors – more abstract forms of art, too. Here we bring together a stunning array of images that show the often-overlooked beauty that can be found in the scales of snakes, lizards and crocodiles.
Hills, depressions, impact craters and volcanoes are features we might associate with a lunar landscape. The surface of the moon is the ultimate foreign terrain, and yet look how it is almost replicated in these alligator scales. Known as 'scutes', alligator scales go deeper than the outer epidermis of snakes and lizards, forming a kind of armor for the animal. Unlike the scales of snake skin, alligator scales do not overlap. Beautiful to look at – a gator's skin might not feel that smooth to the touch (not that we'd dare to test the theory...).
Photo: Morven Houston
Scales are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up our fingernails and hair. In the animal world, scales are part of what distinguishes reptiles (and, of course, fish) from other animals. Birds also boast scales on their feet but, unlike with these incredible examples, scales are arguably the least remarkable feature of our feathered friends.
Scales in both snakes and lizards take a variety of forms – tubercular, platelike and overlapping – but often have an incredible symmetry, as we can see in these images. The scale itself can also take different forms – like the intricate diamond shapes adorning the back of this albino python.
Photo: Dominic Cotaoco
Snakes' scales serve as protection for the body, a way of retaining moisture, and as an aid to movement – particularly the scales on their stomachs, which are designed to grip surfaces while the creature's muscles push it forward. The scales on this corn snake (or red rat snake, as it is sometimes known) look like they have been tipped with tiny eyes.
Both snakes and lizards moult or shed their skin. This is for two main reasons: to replace old and worn skin and to get rid of pesky parasites like mites and ticks. While older snakes tend to only moult once or twice a year, still-growing youngsters will shed more often – sometimes as many as four times annually.
The combination of rusty orange and baby blue on a sweater would probably make for a real eyesore, but somehow, in nature, colors never seem to clash. This Tokay gecko is an attractive animal indeed. Something which might undermine its appeal, however, is a rather disgusting habit common to many geckos. After or during the moulting process, a gecko will often eat its old skin. We're sure it's a useful strategy for covering one's tracks in the wild, but the thought still makes us rather queasy!
Rather than moulting in flakes, like some lizards, snakes shed their skin all in one go. This is because snake scales aren't separate, but extensions of the epidermis, so the process is akin to losing an entire layer of skin. While this has been likened to turning a sock inside out, it could also be thought of as the snake leaving behind a ghostly shell of its former self (anyone who has seen an empty snakeskin can surely testify that it's a rather creepy sight!).
Photo: Joaquim Mello
The gorgeous colors and patterning on this chameleon certainly suggest that Mother Nature is the best abstract artist in the world. The dramatically shaded Furcifer pardalis, or panther chameleon, comes from Madagascar. We wonder what kind of psychedelic backdrop this guy was trying to camouflage itself against when this shot was taken!
It's hard to believe that this bumpy terrain is actually the skin of an animal. This intriguing image is of a reptile, and shows how diverse their scales can be. Despite the little mounds on this critter's back, the pattern is still wonderfully symmetrical and well-ordered.
As this picture shows, reptile scales don't need to be colorful to be beautiful. The simple but eye-catching pattern in browns and blacks has an impact all of its own. The picture was taken in London Zoo, but we also wouldn't be surprised if you told us it was a close-up of a woman's handbag. In light of patterns such as these, it's easy to understand why the controversial trade in snakeskin is still popular in the fashion world.
Photo: Morven Houston
Here we have another rocky landscape, this time in deep pink. It belongs to a panther chameleon, and this close-up shows off the intricacy of the creature's bumpy scales to perfection. It's interesting to note that the color-change chameleons are so famous for is used mostly for social reasons and not camouflage. For example, when two male panther chameleons are squaring up to each other, they will change color and puff themselves up in an attempt to assert their supremacy. The loser of this posturing battle will signal his retreat by returning to dull, darker colors.
The thick green scutes on this crocodile make it look as though an eccentric tailor has carefully covered it in buttons. While the animal is not generally known for its good looks, crocodile skin has – for better or worse – been recognised for its beauty, and is still used in many countries to manufacture purses and shoes.
Interestingly, the scales of snakes like this tree python are themselves effectively transparent, with the color emanating from the skin beneath. Luckily for us, the combination of possible colors and patterns to be found on reptile skins appears almost limitless, so that each case can be considered a unique and miniature work of art.