Characteristics

Most reptiles have horny skin, almost always comified as scales or larger structures called scutes or plates. Such integuments resist osmotic movement of water from body compartments or tissues into the surrounding air or soil, thus minimizing desiccation. There are times in the lives of snakes and lizards when their skin becomes permeable to water, as when the animals are preparing to shed their old skin. During such times they seek out favorable hiding places that protect them not only from predators but also from water loss. The combination of integumentary impermeability (most of the time) and innate preferences for favorable microclimates during vulnerable periods allows reptiles to retain body water rather than to lose it to arid surroundings. Some reptiles are known to drink water that condenses on their scales when they reside in cool burrows.

Added to the mechanisms for retaining body water is an excretory system that is considerably advanced over those in fishes and many amphibians. The kidneys are integral components of the circulatory system. They allow constant, efficient filtration of blood. Most aquatic organisms excrete nitrogenous waste as ammonia. Ammonia readily diffuses across skin or gills, provided plenty of water is present, but is not efficiently excreted by the kidneys. Ammonia is highly toxic, and animals cannot survive if this substance accumulates in their bodies. Terrestrial organisms excrete nitrogenous waste in the form of urea or uric acid, which are less toxic and which require less water than does excretion of ammonia. Urea is the main nitrogenous waste in terrestrial amphibians, whereas uric acid (which requires very little water) is the main nitrogenous effluent in reptiles. Finally, some desert-dwelling reptiles have a remarkable ability to tolerate high plasma urea concentrations during drought. This characteristic allows the animals to minimize water loss that would be coincident with excretion. Rather than being excreted, nitrogenous waste is simply retained as urea, and water is conserved. When a rainfall finally occurs, reptiles (e.g., the desert tortoise Gopherus agassizii) drink copiously, eliminate wastes stored in the bladder, and begin filtering urea from the plasma. Within days their systems return to normal, and the tortoises store a large volume of freshwater in their bladders to deal with the next drought.

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