Different Snake Scale Types

Written by Matthew Emma
Updated: January 25, 2024
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Like all reptiles, snakes possess coverings called scales. These features play a key role in several important functions. Discover the different snake scale types and the function of each.

The Speckled Kingsnake has a glossy black body with whitish-yellow dots on its scales.

The speckled kingsnake has a glossy black body with whitish-yellow dots on its scales.

©Joe Farah/Shutterstock.com

What Are Scales?

Scales make up a snake’s skin. These individual coverings are made up of a substance known as keratin, which is the same hard, brittle material found in human fingernails.

Ornate Black-Tailed Rattlesnake, Crotalus ornatus isolated on white background

A closeup of the ornate black-tailed


shows the large triangular intranasal scales at the tip of their snout.

©Scott Delony/Shutterstock.com

How Do Scales Form?

A snake’s scales form in the top layer of its skin known scientifically as the epidermis. Scales typically make up a small portion of the epidermis called a fold. The snake’s lower skin layer called the dermis initially helps support the developing scale. However, as time moves on, keratin hardens the skin folds. Eventually, these folds turn into scales. A fully mature snake often has hundreds of scales throughout its body.

Different Types of Snake Scales

Scientists divide scales into two general categories: smooth and keeled.

As their name might suggest, smooth scales are even and level. Additionally, these features shine and reflect light. Keeled scales possess a noticeable roughness and rigidity.

Scales are further divided into several specific subtypes such as:

Ventral Scales

Also known as belly scales, these big and long features align with a snake’s bottom. Without ventral scales, snakes could not properly move. Scientists suggest that the bodily components act like a car tire’s treads enabling the snake to slither across all types of surfaces.

Dorsal Scales

These skin designs appear on a snake’s rear side and are also commonly labeled back scales. Dorsal scales vary in color, shape, and size. This all depends on the type of snake. The dorsal variety also enables snakes to travel along various terrains. However, the coloring of such scales might also provide important disguises aiding the creatures in hunting and hiding from predators.

Rostral Scales

Certain snakes possess a rostral or nose scale. This feature helps the reptile move through potentially challenging locations like soil or sand.

Rattle Scale

Unique to rattlesnakes, the rattle scale is located on the tail. When the snake shakes this feature, it produces a terrifying rattle-like sound warning predators or enemies of impending trouble.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons – License / Original

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About the Author

I have been in the writing field for more than 20 years. During my career's first half, I served as print and online journalist for various local publications. Over the latter half, my interests turned to content and freelance writing where I've covered various topics for a wide-ranging client base. Relating to animals, I currently serve as a family assistant for a woman with two aging dogs. Raven and Cruz have intensified my love for dogs, increased my awareness of animal issues, and inspired me to devote more of my time and professional skills to promoting animal causes.

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