Glossary of Common Herpetological Terms

Anatomy & Physiology

Autonomy: the ability to drop or shed the tail as a defense mechanism; many, but not all, lizards have this ability (Exceptions are bearded dragons, crested geckos)

Carapace: the upper section of a chelonian’s shell

Cloaca: the cavity of a reptile which contains the openings of the urinary, alimentary (digestive) and reproductive systems. (see also “vent”)

Dewlap: the flap of skin on the throat of many male iguanid lizard species that is used for display purposes, i.e. to attract a mate and/or to intimidate rivals; this flap may hang loose at all times (Ex: green iguanas) that is extended at will, or is folded under the throat when not in use (Ex: anoles)

Ectotherm: any animal that cannot regulate its own body temperature and has to rely on outside influences for its body to function properly (Ex: reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates); exceptions to this broad term would be the oceanic leatherback turtle and the great white shark. Both of these animals are able to maintain their own body temperature.

Ecdysis: the process of shedding (molting) an outer layer of skin (see also “molting”); may take one to three weeks; lizards do this in patches, whereas snakes should do it in one solid piece.

Jacobson’s organ: the organ used for processing olfactory information in snakes and many lizards; located in the roof of the mouth

Larva: the infantile form of an insect (Ex. mealworms, waxworms, superworms)

Metamorphosis: the change from a larval stage to an adult state (Ex. tadpole to frog, caterpillar to butterfly)

Neurotoxin: a poison that affects the nervous system

Plastron: the belly section of a chelonian’s shell

Poison: a toxin that is absorbed through the skin or ingested; related term is poisonous (Ex. Poison dart frogs)

Spawn: the eggs of amphibians

Tadpole: the larval form of a frog; sometimes extended to include that of toads, which are also known as polliwogs.

Venom: a toxin that is injected into the skin through a fang, stinger, or spur; related term is venomous (Ex. Any venomous snake)

Vent: the external opening to the cloaca


Aestivation: [syn. estivation] the act of enduring a dry season in a dormant state (Ex: African “Pyxie” bullfrog)

Aquatic: subject to interpretation, but often describes an animal that spends the majority of its time in water (Ex: red-eared sliders, African clawed frogs, crocodilans)

Arboreal: the term used to describe an animal that spends the majority of its time in trees or shrubs (Ex: Emerald tree boa, most chameleon species)

Brumation: the state of dormancy that many herps experience just prior to a breeding season

Carnivore: any animal that primarily eats meat

Crepuscular: describes an animal that is active mostly at dusk or before dawn (Ex: glass lizards)

Diurnal: describes an animal that is active mostly during the daylight hours; most lizards are diurnal (Exceptions are many gecko species)

Endemic: native or indigenous to a certain region or area.

Fossorial: describes an animal that spends the majority of its life burrowing under the ground (Ex. caecilians, many skinks)

Herbivore: any animal that primarily eats vegetation and fruit

Hibernation: the act of enduring a cold season in dormancy (similar to aestivation, only during the winter months)

Insectivore: any animal that eats primarily invertebrates

Molting: [syn. “shedding”] the physical act of ecdysis

Nocturnal: describes an animal that is active mostly at night

Omnivore: any animal that regularly eats both meat and vegetation

Oviparous: the ability to produce eggs that hatch outside the mother’s body (see also “viviparous”)

Prehensile: adapted for grasping or wrapping around an object (Ex. the tentacle of an octopus, tail of a monkey)

Semi-aquatic: subject to interpretation, but often describes an animal that lives near water, but spends approximately only 50% or less of its time in it. (Ex. terrapins)

Terrestrial: describes an animal that spends most of its time on the ground.

Territorial: the behavior of defending a certain area

Viviparous: the ability to produce eggs that hatch inside the mother’s body

Taxonomy & Classification

Amphibian(s): the class of vertebrates that do not have amniotic eggs, are ectothermic, and with few exceptions, are dependent on the constance presence of water; includes frogs, toads, salamanders & newts

Arachnid: the group of arthropods that include spiders, scorpions, mites & ticks. These creatures have 4 pairs of legs, only two body sections (cephalothorax & abdomen) and many eyes (insects only have 6 legs and one pair of eyes)

Arthropod: the group of invertebrates that possess a hard, exo-skeleton (Ex. arachnids, insects, crustaceans)

Herptile: (abbrev. “herp”) any reptile or amphibian

Insect: any arthropod with 3 pairs of legs, and three main body sections (the head, thorax, & abdomen)

Invertebrate: any creature without a backbone (more specifically, no internal skeletal system); includes arthropods & mollusks, among other groups.

Species: generally, the most specific taxonomy of an animal. Related species form a Genus, and often, species with enough variation are classified into sub-species.

Taxonomy: the science of classifying plants and animals

Most popular families of Lizards (sub-order Squamata)

Iguanids: with few exceptions, are found in the New World; includes anoles, swifts, basilisks, iguanas, collared lizards

Agamids: with few exceptions, are found in the Old World, most commonly in Africa & Australia; includes bearded dragons, water dragons, frilled dragons,

Geckos: found worldwide; with few exceptions, are known for their lamella (sticky feet that can adhere to any surface) and their lack of eyelids

Varanids: found mostly in the Old World; usually carnivorous, and represent some of the largest lizards; include savannah monitors, nile monitors, Komodo dragons,

Skinks: found nearly worldwide; with few exceptions, have long bodies, small, short limbs, and smooth, overlapping plate-like scalation; includes blue-tongued skinks, five-lined skinks, fire skinks, prehensile-tailed skinks

Anguids: found mostly in the New World & in Africa; very closely-related to skinks, but are distinguished by a lateral fold of skin that runs from the armpit to the vent, and allows expansion; includes alligator lizards, glass lizards, plated lizards, sungazers

Chameleons: found in Madagasacar and in parts of Africa; have distinctly laterally-compressed bodies, feet specifically shaped for grasping, and no external ear openings; also possess a long muscular tongue nearly as long as the lizard itself; includes veiled “chams”, Jackson’s chams, panther chams,

There are other families of lizards, but they’re more obscure in the pet trade, while the ones listed above are the most common.

Most Popular Families of Snakes (sub-order Serpentes)

Colubrids: found worldwide and the largest family of snakes; most are relatively slender snakes; many species are considered venomous, but only a few are harmful to man; include ratsnakes, kingsnakes & milksnakes, garter & ribbon snakes, water snakes, racers, coachwhips, bull/pine & gopher snakes, hognose snakes

Boids: found in most twarm regions of the world; with some exceptions, are thick-bodied constrictors; includes pythons, boas, & anacondas; with few exceptions, pythons are generally found in the Old World while boas are found in the New World

Elapids: found in most warm regions of the world; most are relatively slender snakes; all species are venomous, and most are harmful to man; includes cobras, coral snakes, mambas, taipans, sea snakes

Vipers: with few exceptions, are found in the Old World; most are thick-bodied snakes with keeled scales; all are venomous, and most are harmful to man; includes Gaboon vipers, rhinoceros vipers

Pit Vipers: with some exceptions, found in the New World; most are thick-bodied snakes; all are venomous, and most are harmful to manl includes rattlesnakes, bushmasters, copperheads, moccasins

There are other families of snakes, but they’re more obscure in the pet trade, while the ones listed above are the most common.

Major Groups of Turtles

Terrapin: chelonians that are considered semi-aquatic, and live around water, but spend much time out of it; this term is usually reserved for the diamondback terrapin, but may also include box turtles, bog turtles & spotted turtles

Tortoise: chelonians that live exclusively in land, usually in dry regions (giant Galapagos species, African spur-thighed tortoise, gopher tortoise)

Turtle: chelonians that spend the majority of their lives in water (sea turtles, pond sliders, mud/musk turtles, side-necked turtles, snappers)

Misc. Terms

Ambient temperature: [abbrev. “amb temp”] the average or overall temperature of a habitat

Aquarium: an artificial habitat that simulates an exclusively aquatic environment (Ex. Fish tank)

Aquaterrarium: [syn. paludarium] an artificial habitat that simulates a semi-aquatic environment, and includes both a completely dry land area and a body of water.

CITES: the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species; this organization is responsible for the regulation of endangered wildlife.

Fuzzy: a very young mouse or rat that has fur, but still has shut eyes and limited movement

Herpetology; the study of reptiles & amphibians. Related terms are: herpetologist (one who practices herpetology), herpetoculture (the propogation and care of herptiles) and “herper” (any person who is genuinely interested in herptiles)

Hopper: a young (approx. half-grown) mouse or rat that has fur, has opened eyes and can move around on its own; approximately half the size of an adult mouse/rat.

Humidity: the moisture content of air

Pinky: a recently-born mouse or rat that has no hair, and (obviously) unopened eyes.

Terrarium: an artificial habitat that simulates any land-based environment (i.e. desert, savannah, rainforest)

Venomoid: a venomous snake that has had its venom-producing organs surgically altered or removed in order to render it harmless for a captive lifestyle (a highly controversial procedure)

Vivarium: an artificial habitat that simulates any natural environment

Common terms regarding color morphs and hybrids

Amelanism: [syn. albino] the complete absence of dark (mainly black) pigment

Hybrid: there are actually three types of hybrid
– interspecific hybrid: between two species of the same Genus (Ex. “bat-eater” cross between a Burmese python & reticulated python)
– intraspecific hybrid: between two sub-species of the same species (syn. intergrade) – (Ex. rootbeer corn, cross between a cornsnake & great plains ratsnake)
– intergenetic hybrid: between animals of different Genera (Ex. jungle cornsnake, cross between a cornsnake & CA kingsnake)

Hypermelanism: abnormal increase in black pigmentation (not as extreme as melanism)

Hypomelanism: abnormal reduction in black pigmentation (not a complete absence like amelanism)

Melanism: the complete dominance of black pigmentation; results in a very dark, or black animal