Modern Reptiles

Class Reptilia includes many diverse species that are classified into four living clades. There are the 25 species of Crocodilia, two species of Sphenodontia, approximately 9,200 Squamata species, and about 325 species of Testudines.


Crocodilia (“small lizard”) arose as a distinct lineage by the middle Triassic; extant species include alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caimans. Crocodilians (Figure) live throughout the tropics and subtropics of Africa, South America, Southern Florida, Asia, and Australia. They are found in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish habitats, such as rivers and lakes, and spend most of their time in water. Crocodiles are descended from terrestrial reptiles and can still walk and run well on land. They often move on their bellies in a swimming motion, propelled by alternate movements of their legs. However, some species can lift their bodies off the ground, pulling their legs in under the body with their feet rotated to face forward. This mode of locomotion takes a lot of energy, and seems to be used primarily to clear ground obstacles. Amazingly, some crocodiles can also gallop, pushing off with their hind legs and moving their hind and forelegs alternately in pairs. Galloping crocodiles have been clocked at speeds over 17 kph and, over short distances, in an ambush situation, they can easily chase down most humans if they are taken by surprise. However, they are short distance runners, not interested in a long chase, and most fit humans can probably outrun them in a sprint (assuming they respond quickly to the ambush!).

The photo shows a crocodile sitting in the mud.
A crocodilian. Crocodilians, such as this Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), provide parental care for their offspring. (credit: Keshav Mukund Kandhadai)


Sphenodontia (“wedge tooth”) arose in the early Mesozoic era, when they had a moderate radiation, but now are represented by only two living species: Sphenodon punctatus and Sphenodon guntheri, both found on offshore islands in New Zealand (Figure). The common name "tuatara" comes from a Maori word describing the crest along its back. Tuataras have a primitive diapsid skull with biconcave vertebrae. They measure up to 80 centimeters and weigh about 1 kilogram. Although superficially similar to an iguanid lizard, several unique features of the skull and jaws clearly define them and distinguish this group from the Squamata. They have no external ears. Tuataras briefly have a third (parietal) eye—with a lens, retina, and cornea—in the middle of the forehead. The eye is visible only in very young animals; it is soon covered with skin. Parietal eyes can sense light, but have limited color discrimination. Similar light-sensing structures are also seen in some other lizards. In their jaws, tuataras have two rows of teeth in the upper jaw that bracket a single row of teeth in the lower jaw. These teeth are actually projections from the jawbones, and are not replaced as they wear down.

This photo shows a green lizard with short spines on its back.
A tuatara. This tuatara from New Zealand may resemble a lizard but belongs to a distinct lineage, the Sphenodontidae family. (credit: Sid Mosdell)


The Squamata (“scaly or having scales”) arose in the late Permian, and extant species include lizards and snakes. Both are found on all continents except Antarctica. Lizards and snakes are most closely related to tuataras, both groups having evolved from a lepidosaurian ancestor. Squamata is the largest extant clade of reptiles (Figure).

The photo shows a green lizard with its tail curled like a snail shell. The lizard has two horns and matches the leaves of the plant on which it sits.
A chameleon. This Jackson’s chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) blends in with its surroundings.

Most lizards differ from snakes by having four limbs, although these have often been lost or significantly reduced in at least 60 lineages. Snakes lack eyelids and external ears, which are both present in lizards. There are about 6,000 species of lizards, ranging in size from tiny chameleons and geckos, some of which are only a few centimeters in length, to the Komodo dragon, which is about 3 meters in length.

Some lizards are extravagantly decorated with spines, crests, and frills, and many are brightly colored. Some lizards, like chameleons (Figure), can change their skin color by redistributing pigment within chromatophores in their skins. Chameleons change color both for camouflage and for social signaling. Lizards have multiple-colored oil droplets in their retinal cells that give them a good range of color vision. Lizards, unlike snakes, can focus their eyes by changing the shape of the lens. The eyes of chameleons can move independently. Several species of lizards have a "hidden" parietal eye, similar to that in the tuatara. Both lizards and snakes use their tongues to sample the environment and a pit in the roof of the mouth, Jacobson's organ, is used to evaluate the collected sample.

Most lizards are carnivorous, but some large species, such as iguanas, are herbivores. Some predatory lizards are ambush predators, waiting quietly until their prey is close enough for a quick grab. Others are patient foragers, moving slowly through their environment to detect possible prey. Lizard tongues are long and sticky and can be extended at high speed for capturing insects or other small prey. Traditionally, the only venomous lizards are the Gila monster and the beaded lizard. However, venom glands have also been identified in several species of monitors and iguanids, but the venom is not injected directly and should probably be regarded as a toxin delivered with the bite.

Specialized features of the jaw are related to adaptations for feeding that have evolved to feed on relatively large prey (even though some current species have reversed this trend). Snakes are thought to have descended from either burrowing or aquatic lizards over 100 million years ago (Figure). They include about 3,600 species, ranging in size from 10 centimeter-long thread snakes to 10 meter-long pythons and anacondas. All snakes are legless, except for boids (e.g., boa constrictors), which have vestigial hindlimbs in the form of pelvic spurs. Like caecilian amphibians, the narrow bodies of most snakes have only a single functional lung. All snakes are carnivorous and eat small animals, birds, eggs, fish, and insects.

The photo shows a snake with orange and black bands and white stripes.
A nonvenomous snake. The garter snake belongs to the genus Thamnophis, the most widely distributed reptile genus in North America. (credit: Steve Jurvetson)

Most snakes have a skull that is very flexible, involving eight rotational joints. They also differ from other squamates by having mandibles (lower jaws) without either bony or ligamentous attachment anteriorly. Having this connection via skin and muscle allows for great dynamic expansion of the gape and independent motion of the two sides—both advantages in swallowing big prey. Most snakes are nonvenomous and simply swallow their prey alive, or subdue it by constriction before swallowing it. Venomous snakes use their venom both to kill or immobilize their prey, and to help digest it.

Although snakes have no eyelids, their eyes are protected with a transparent scale. Their retinas have both rods and cones, and like many animals, they do not have receptor pigments for red light. Some species, however, can see in the ultraviolet, which allows them to track ultraviolet signals in rodent trails. Snakes adjust focus by moving their heads. They have lost both external and middle ears, although their inner ears are sensitive to ground vibrations. Snakes have a number of sensory structures that assist in tracking prey. In pit vipers, like rattlesnakes, a sensory pit between the eye and nostrils is sensitive to infrared (“heat”) emissions from warm-blooded prey. A row of similar pits is located on the upper lip of boids. As noted above, snakes also use Jacobson's organ for detecting olfactory signals.


The turtles, terrapins, and tortoises are members of the clade Testudines (“having a shell”) (Figure), and are characterized by a bony or cartilaginous shell. The shell in turtles is not just an epidermal covering, but is incorporated into the skeletal system. The dorsal shell is called the carapace and includes the backbone and ribs; the ventral shell is called the plastron. Both shells are covered with keratinous plates or scutes, and the two shells are held together by a bridge. In some turtles, the plastron is hinged to allow the head and legs to be withdrawn under the shell.

The two living groups of turtles, Pleurodira and Cryptodira, have significant anatomical differences and are most easily recognized by how they retract their necks. The more common Cryptodira retract their neck in a vertical S-curve; they appear to simply pull their head backward when retracting. Less common Pleurodira ("side-neck") retract their neck with a horizontal curve, basically folding their neck to the side.

The Testudines arose approximately 200 million years ago, predating crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. There are about 325 living species of turtles and tortoises. Like other reptiles, turtles are ectotherms. All turtles are oviparous, laying their eggs on land, although many species live in or near water. None exhibit parental care. Turtles range in size from the speckled padloper tortoise at 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) to the leatherback sea turtle at 200 centimeters (over 6 feet). The term “turtle” is sometimes used to describe only those species of Testudines that live in the sea, with the terms “tortoise” and “terrapin” used to refer to species that live on land and in fresh water, respectively.

The photo shows a very large tortoise.
A tortoise. The African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) lives at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is the third largest tortoise in the world. (credit: Jim Bowen)