Reptiles – Definition, Examples, Characteristics

Reptiles Orders
The orders of reptiles are Squamata, Testudines, Crocodylia, and Rhynchocephalia.

Reptiles are a diverse group of vertebrates that have played a pivotal role in the ecological and evolutionary history of life on Earth. In this comprehensive article, we will explore the defining characteristics of reptiles, their evolutionary history, and the various orders within the class Reptilia.

What Is a Reptile? Definition

Reptiles are cold-blooded, scaly vertebrates that belong to the class Reptilia. They are distinguished from other vertebrates by specific physical and physiological traits. While mammals and birds are warm-blooded, reptiles rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature.

Shared Characteristics with Other Vertebrates

Reptiles share several features with other vertebrates, such as:

  • A vertebral column (spine)
  • An endoskeleton made of bone or cartilage
  • A similar arrangement of internal organs
  • Bilateral symmetry

Characteristics of Reptiles

Reptiles have several identifying characteristics:

  1. Ectothermic Metabolism: Reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning their internal temperature varies with the environment.
  2. Scaly Skin: They have dry, scaly skin that prevents water loss.
  3. Respiration: Reptiles breathe using lungs.
  4. Tetrapods: Reptiles have four limbs or, in the case of snakes, descend from animals that had four limbs.
  5. Reproduction: Most reptiles lay shelled eggs on land, although some give birth to live young.
  6. Heart Chambers: Most have a three-chambered heart, but crocodilians have a four-chambered heart.

Examples of Reptiles and Non-Reptiles

Knowing the reptile characteristics makes it easier distinguishing them from other animals. Reptiles are vertebrates, meaning they have an internal skeleton with a backbone. They are cold-blooded, scaly, and have lungs that breathe air.


  • Snakes (e.g., Cobra)
  • Lizards (e.g., Iguana)
  • Turtles (e.g., Galapagos Tortoise)
  • Crocodilians (e.g., American Alligator)


  • Amphibians (e.g., Frogs) – Cold-blooded vertebrates, but no scales
  • Fish (e.g., Salmon) – Cold-blooded vertebrates with scales, but use gills for breathing in water
  • Birds (e.g., Eagles) – Warm-blooded
  • Mammals (e.g., Humans) – Warm-blooded
  • Invertebrates (e.g., Squid, Crabs) – Cold-blooded, but lack vertebrae

Evolutionary History of Reptiles

Reptiles first appeared about 310-320 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. They evolved from amphibian-like creatures, and with the development of the amniotic egg, they became the first vertebrates capable of living entirely on land. This evolutionary leap provided a distinct advantage, leading to the dominance of reptiles during the Mesozoic era, often called the “Age of Reptiles.”

Orders within Class Reptilia

The class Reptilia divides into orders, each with unique characteristics and representative species:

  1. Order Squamata (Squamates):
    • Scientific Name: Squamata
    • Common Names: Snakes and Lizards
    • Examples: King Cobra (Snake), Komodo Dragon (Lizard)
  2. Order Testudines (Turtles and Tortoises):
    • Scientific Name: Testudines
    • Common Names: Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins
    • Examples: Leatherback Turtle (Sea Turtle), African Spurred Tortoise (Tortoise)
  3. Order Crocodylia (Crocodilians):
    • Scientific Name: Crocodylia
    • Common Names: Crocodiles, Alligators, Caimans, and Gharials
    • Examples: Nile Crocodile (Crocodile), American Alligator (Alligator)
  4. Order Rhynchocephalia (Tuataras):
    • Scientific Name: Rhynchocephalia
    • Common Names: Tuataras
    • Examples: Brothers Island Tuatara

Biggest and Smallest Reptiles

The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the largest living reptile in the world. Adult males reach lengths of up to 6-7 meters (about 20-23 feet) and weigh up to 1,000 to 1,200 kilograms (about 2,200 to 2,600 pounds). They live in parts of the Indo-Pacific region, from India and Vietnam to northern Australia.

Probably the smallest reptile is the Jaragua sphaero or Jaragua dwarf gecko (Sphaerodactylus ariasae). Adult males measure just 16-18 millimeters (0.63-0.71 inches) in length. This tiny gecko lives on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Anole Parietal Eye
Many reptiles, like this anole, have a parietal eye. (TheAlphaWolf, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Interesting Reptile Facts

Reptiles are a fascinating and diverse group of animals, boasting a range of interesting and unusual characteristics. Here’s a list of some of the most intriguing facts about reptiles:

  1. Variability in Heart Structure: Most reptiles have a three-chambered heart, but crocodilians (like alligators and crocodiles) have a four-chambered heart, similar to mammals and birds.
  2. Longevity: Some reptiles have incredibly long lifespans. For instance, some tortoises live for over a century. The Aldabra giant tortoise often lives over 150 years.
  3. Parthenogenesis: Some reptile species, like certain lizards and snakes, can reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis, where the female produces offspring without a male’s contribution.
  4. Parietal Eye: Many reptiles, as well as amphibians, have a third eye or parietal eye on top of the head. While it doesn’t form images, it aids in detecting light and movement.
  5. Shedding Skin: Reptiles periodically shed their skin as they grow, a process known as ecdysis. Unlike amphibians, which often shed in pieces, many reptiles shed their skin in one large piece.
  6. Sensory Abilities: Some snakes have heat-sensing pits on their faces, allowing them to detect warm-blooded prey in total darkness.
  7. Detachable Tails: Some lizards can detach a part of their tail to escape predators. The tail continues to twitch, distracting the predator while the lizard escapes. This is known as autotomy.
  8. Venomous Varieties: While many people know about venomous snakes, there are also venomous lizards. The Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard are two examples of venomous lizards.
  9. Breath Holding: Some turtles can hold their breath for incredibly long periods. The North American snapping turtle can stay submerged for up to three hours while hunting or hiding.
  10. Color Changing: Chameleons are famous for their ability to change color for camouflage, communication, and temperature regulation.
  11. Living Fossils: The tuatara, a reptile found in New Zealand, is often called a “living fossil” because it resembles species that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
  12. Unique Birth: Some reptiles, like the Surinam toad, have unique birthing methods. The female Surinam toad carries fertilized eggs in pockets on her back, where they develop and eventually emerge as fully formed toadlets.
  13. Gliding Flight: The Draco lizard can glide for short distances using wing-like flaps of skin stretched over elongated ribs, allowing it to move from tree to tree in its Southeast Asian forest habitat.
  14. Underwater Breathing: Some turtle species absorb oxygen directly from the water through specialized skin areas in their mouth and throat, a process known as cloacal respiration.
  15. Extreme Weather Survival: Reptiles like the desert tortoise can survive in extreme environments. They can live in areas where temperatures reach over 140 degrees Fahrenheit by burrowing underground.
  16. Independent Eyes: Chameleons have remarkable eyes that move independently, allowing them to look in two different directions at the same time.
  17. Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination: In many reptiles, the temperature at which eggs are incubated determines the sex of the offspring.


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