Reptiles are tetrapods. Limbless reptiles—snakes—may have vestigial limbs and, like caecilians, are classified as tetrapods because they are descended from four-limbed ancestors. Reptiles lay shelled eggs on land. Even aquatic reptiles, like sea turtles, return to the land to lay eggs. They usually reproduce sexually with internal fertilization. Some species display ovoviviparity, with the eggs remaining in the mother’s body until they are ready to hatch. Other species are viviparous, with the offspring born alive.
One of the key adaptations that permitted reptiles to live on land was the development of their scaly skin, containing the protein keratin and waxy lipids, which prevented water loss from the skin. This occlusive skin means that reptiles cannot use their skin for respiration, like amphibians, and thus all must breathe with lungs. In addition, reptiles conserve valuable body water by excreting nitrogen in the form of uric acid paste. These characteristics, along with the shelled, amniotic egg, were the major reasons why reptiles became so successful in colonizing a variety of terrestrial habitats far from water.
Reptiles are ectotherms, that is, animals whose main source of body heat comes from the environment. Behavioral maneuvers, like basking to heat themselves, or seeking shade or burrows to cool off, help them regulate their body temperature,
Class Reptilia includes diverse species classified into four living clades. These are the Crocodilia, Sphenodontia, Squamata, and Testudines.
The Crocodilia(“small lizard”) arose approximately 84 million years ago, and living species include alligators, crocodiles, and caimans. Crocodilians (Figure 15.44) live throughout the tropics of Africa, South America, the southeastern United States, Asia, and Australia. They are found in freshwater habitats, such as rivers and lakes, and spend most of their time in water. Some species are able to move on land due to their semi-erect posture.
The Sphenodontia (“wedge tooth”) arose in the Mesozoic Era and includes only one living genus, Tuatara, with two species that are found in New Zealand. There are many fossil species extending back to the Triassic period (250–200 million years ago). Although the tuataras resemble lizards, they are anatomically distinct and share characteristics that are found in birds and turtles.
Squamata (“scaly”) arose in the late Permian; living species include lizards and snakes, which are the largest extant clade of reptiles (Figure 15.44). Lizards differ from snakes by having four limbs, eyelids, and external ears, which are lacking in snakes. Lizard species range in size from chameleons and geckos that are a few centimeters in length to the Komodo dragon, which is about 3 meters in length.
Snakes are thought to have descended from either burrowing lizards or aquatic lizards over 100 million years ago (Figure 15.44). Snakes comprise about 3,000 species and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They range in size from 10 centimeter-long thread snakes to 7.5 meter-long pythons and anacondas. All snakes are carnivorous and eat small animals, birds, eggs, fish, and insects.
Turtles are members of the clade Testudines (“having a shell”) (Figure 15.44). Turtles are characterized by a bony or cartilaginous shell, made up of the carapace on the back and the plastron on the ventral surface, which develops from the ribs. Turtles arose approximately 200 million years ago, predating crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. Turtles lay eggs on land, although many species live in or near water. 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.