Reptiles: Features, Types & Importance

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  • 0:01 What Is a Reptile?
  • 1:38 General Features
  • 2:46 Types
  • 6:39 Importance
  • 7:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Reptiles are more than just snakes. In this lesson, we'll explore the reptile class, discover what other animals are reptiles, what makes them related, and why they are important.

What is a Reptile?

Reptiles began to roam the earth about the same time as the dinosaurs. That's a long time to be creeping around, don't you think?

The word reptile comes from Latin and means 'one who creeps.' Reptiles are a varied group of a vertebrates (they have a backbone) that includes snakes, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, turtles, worm-lizards and caimans. They live in deserts, forests, freshwater wetlands and the open ocean. Because reptiles are cold-blooded and require less food than birds and mammals, they are the dominate animal in desert environments.

Two characteristics enable reptiles to inhabit land environments to a greater extent than their amphibian ancestors:

  1. Scales or scutes
  2. The ability to lay hard-shelled or leathery-shelled eggs.

The shell of eggs provides a protective enclosure for the embryo to develop within, so reptiles can lay their eggs in a dry environment. Amphibians, on the other hand, require a damp environment to lay their very soft jelly-like eggs.

The largest reptiles include the leatherback turtle at two meters long and weighing between 250-700 kg, the Komodo dragon is more than three meters long and about 70 kg in weight and the saltwater crocodile, who weighs between 600-1000 kg and is four to five and a half meters long.

General Features

Let's find out what makes a reptile a reptile.

  • All reptiles have a backbone, which means they are vertebrates.
  • All reptiles produce eggs. Most reptiles lay hard-shelled eggs, but a few give birth to live young.
  • All reptiles have scales or scutes. Scales are small, hard plates that are made from a protein called keratin. Scutes are the shells of turtles and the armor of crocodiles and are very similar to scales. Unlike scales, they are bony structures and develop in a deeper skin level than scales. Both scales and scutes provide physical protection and help prevent water loss through the skin.
  • Reptiles are ectothermic or cold-blooded, which means they cannot control their own body temperature. They must work with their environment to increase or decrease their body temperature. Basking in the sun raises their body temperature, and they move faster when warm. Retreating to shady areas when they get hot lowers their body temperature.

Let's discover more about the types of reptiles.


There are four groups or types of reptiles:

  1. The turtles
  2. The squamata (lizards and snakes)
  3. The crocodilians (crocodiles and alligators)
  4. The tuatara (lizard-like)

Turtles have changed very little since they first appeared around 200 million years ago. Their protective shell, called a carapace, covers their soft body and provides camouflage. The shell is part of the turtle's skeleton and is composed of two parts. The outer layer is made of scutes, and the inner layer is made of bone. They do not have teeth, but do have a sharp beak to help them tear their food.

Tortoise refers to turtles that live on land, and terrapin means turtles that live in freshwater. Most turtles are plant eaters. They have an excellent sense of smell, but have poor hearing. There are two orders of turtles: the hidden-necked ones who can pull their head and neck straight back into their shell and still see with both eyes; and the side-necked who fold their neck and head sideways and tuck it under their shell near the shoulder and can still see with one eye.

Squamata is the most diverse of reptiles with about 7,500 species. These include lizards, snakes, and worm-lizards. All squamates shed their skin. Some, like snakes, shed in one piece. Others, like some lizards, shed in patches. Another characteristic that joins squamates is their jointed skulls and jaws, which enable them to open very wide and consume prey much larger than themselves. The lower jaw does not meet in front, so it is in two pieces. There are more than 4,500 species of lizards, about 2,900 species of snakes and 130 species of worm-lizards. The worm-lizards are burrowing reptiles, spending most of their lives underground. Their skulls are designed for digging tunnels.

Crocodilians include alligators and caimans with wide, short heads, crocodiles who have webbed feet and a powerful tails and gharial with its long, narrow jaws. There is only one species of gharial. It eats mostly fish.

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