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29.4D: Modern Reptiles

  • Page ID
    • Boundless
    • Boundless
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    Class Reptilia, amniotes that are neither mammals nor birds, has four living clades: Crocodilia, Sphenodontia, Squamata, and Testudine.

    Learning Objectives
    • Differentiate among the types of modern reptiles

    Key Points

    • Reptile are amniotes that lay their eggs on land; they have scales or scutes and are ectothermic.
    • Crocodilia includes the alligators, crocodiles, and caimans; they are mostly aquatic species, but some are able to move on land because of their semi-erect posture.
    • Tuataras are classified as the only group under Sphenodontia; they may be lizard-like, but skull and jaw differences set them apart from true lizards.
    • Squamata, the largest group of reptiles, includes the lizards and snakes.
    • Snakes, which lack the eyelids and external ears present in lizards, are believed to have evolved from burrowing or aquatic lizards.
    • Turtles are grouped under the Testudines; species in this group all have bony or cartilaginous shells.

    Key Terms

    • scute: a horny, chitinous, or bony external plate or scale, as on the shell of a turtle or the skin of crocodiles
    • plastron: the nearly flat part of the shell structure of a tortoise or other animal, similar in composition to the carapace
    • amniote: a group of vertebrates having an amnion during the development of the embryo; mammals, birds, and reptiles

    Modern Reptiles

    Class Reptilia includes many diverse species that are classified into four living clades. These are the 25 species of Crocodilia, 2 species of Sphenodontia, approximately 9,200 Squamata species, and the Testudines, with about 325 species. A reptile is any amniote (a tetrapod whose egg has an additional membrane, originally to allow them to lay eggs on land) that is neither a mammal nor a bird. Unlike mammals, birds, and certain extinct reptiles, living reptiles have scales or scutes (rather than fur or feathers) and are cold-blooded. Modern reptiles inhabit every continent with the exception of Antarctica.


    Crocodilia (“small lizard”) arose with a distinct lineage by the middle Triassic; extant species include alligators, crocodiles, and caimans. Crocodilians are large, solidly built lizard-like reptiles with long flattened snouts and laterally-compressed tails, and eyes, ears, and nostrils at the top of the head. Their skin is thick and covered in non-overlapping scales. They have conical, peg-like teeth and a powerful bite. As with birds, they have a four-chambered heart and a unidirectional system of air flow around the lungs; however, in contrast to birds, they are ectotherms, as are all other reptiles. Crocodilians 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; they spend most of their time in water. Some species are able to move on land due to their semi-erect posture.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Crocodilians: Crocodilians, such as this Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), have large flattened snouts and thick skin.


    Sphenodontia (“wedge tooth”) arose in the Mesozoic era and includes only one living genus, Tuatara, which comprises two species that are found in New Zealand. Tuataras measure up to 80 centimeters and weigh about 1 kilogram. Although quite lizard-like in gross appearance, several unique features of the skull and jaws clearly define them and distinguish the group from the squamates. Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are also unusual in having a pronounced photoreceptive eye, dubbed the “third eye”, whose current function is a subject of ongoing research, but is thought to be involved in setting circadian and seasonal cycles.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Tuatara: Tuataras may resemble a lizard but belongs to a distinct lineage, the Sphenodontidae family.


    Squamata (“scaly”) arose in the late Permian; extant species include lizards and snakes. They are most closely-related to tuataras; both groups evolved from a lepidosaurian ancestor. Squamata is the largest extant clade of reptiles. Most lizards differ from snakes by having four limbs, although these have been variously lost or significantly reduced in at least 60 lineages. Snakes lack eyelids and external ears, which are present in lizards. Lizard species range in size from chameleons and geckos, which are a few centimeters in length, to the Komodo dragon, which is about 3 meters in length. Most lizards are carnivorous, but some large species, such as iguanas, are herbivores.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Squamata: The Squamata, which includes lizards and snakes, are the largest group of reptiles. The garter snake belongs to the genus Thamnophis, the most widely-distributed reptile genus in North America.

    Snakes are thought to have descended from either burrowing lizards or aquatic lizards over 100 million years ago. Snakes comprise about 3,000 species and range in size from 10 centimeter-long thread snakes to 10 meter-long pythons and anacondas. All snakes are carnivorous, eating small animals, birds, eggs, fish, and insects. Although variations exist, 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 expansion of the gape and independent motion of the two sides; both advantages in swallowing big items.


    Turtles are members of the clade Testudines (“having a shell”). Turtles are characterized by a bony or cartilaginous shell. The shell consists of the ventral surface called the plastron and the dorsal surface called the carapace, which develops from the ribs. The plastron is made of scutes or plates; the scutes can be used to differentiate species of turtles. The two clades of turtles are most easily recognized by how they retract their necks. The dominant group, which includes all North American species, retracts its neck in a vertical S-curve. Turtles in the less speciose clade retract the neck with a horizontal curve.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Testudines: Testudines include all shelled reptiles, such as the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) that lives at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It is the third-largest tortoise in the world.

    Turtles arose approximately 200 million years ago, predating crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. Similar to other reptiles, turtles are ectotherms. They lay 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.

    Contributions and Attributions

    This page titled 29.4D: Modern Reptiles is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Boundless.

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