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On A Grand Scale
9 x 20 


I've always been intrigued and amazed by the geometric perfection of a snake's scales - the mathematical precision of the classic grid pattern, and how perfectly they overlap in certain sections, like the tiles on a roof. What I have learned in rendering scales as an artist is that although they are precise, imperfections are common, and can define an individual animal. I started this piece 5 weeks ago and while working on each scale, one by one, it quickly turned into a study on scale morphology, as well as an exercise in patience!

Formed by the differentiation of the epidermis and comprised of keratin, snake scales are highly variable between species. A snake is born with a specific number of scales that, with the exception of rattle segments, remains constant. During growth, the scales increase in size and may also change shape. Scales provide a protective covering that retains moisture, reduces friction during locomotion, and helps prevent injury due to abrading surfaces.

The arrangement of scales changes along the length of the snake. Some scales overlap, and some do not. Depending on how the body is positioned, skin may be visible on stretched areas. The arrangement, number and type of scales are used in taxonomic identification of species, with an intricate nomenclature used for every type of scale on the body. In fact, counting scale rows is sometimes the only way to identify one species from another, similar one.

By far, the most interesting aspect of snake scales, is the high degree of specialization for specific functions. Each snake is equipped with a unique, clear scale, called a spectacle, that covers the eye for protection. Belly scales are usually long, rectangular, and provide a driving force against the substrate during locomotion. Some snakes have scales as smooth as glass, while other species have distinct ridges, or keeled scales. The most recognized of all the specialized snake scales is of course, the rattle. A baby rattlesnake is born with one hollow scale formed into a chamber on the end of its tail. Every time it sheds its skin a new chamber is added. Over time, a series of these loose, interlocking hollow chambers is created, and will rattle against each other when the snake vibrates its tail during defensive situations.

We think of color as defining most snake species, and in some cases that is true, but the distinct texture, shape and pattern that scales provide can also be used, such that snakes from certain geographic locations can be identified by their shed skins alone. The Neotropical rattlesnake in this artwork (Crotalus durissus) exhibits many of the scale features I have described here, including keeled scales. The beauty and intricacy of snakeskin, for me, is artists eye candy and I never grow tired of admiring the form and function associated with it.

Many thanks to James Adams and The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras for providing this captive specimen to photograph.