Skip to main content

What makes an animal a reptile? It all comes down to these characteristics

We spend a lot of time around other humans and our pets, yet most of us know surprisingly little about how the animal kingdom works. Which of our companions are mammals, which are reptiles, and which are amphibians? It can be tricky to figure this out, especially when you get into creatures that belong to a different category than you’d expect (such as salamanders, an amphibian). You might be able to quickly figure out the mammals since we are the fuzzy ones. Hamsters, dogs, sugar gliders, and people all fit into this category — that mostly makes sense to us. Same too with birds, who do all seem to go together, even the penguin and ostrich. It’s a lot more challenging when you look at amphibians and reptiles, though, as they don’t appear as distinct from one another. But there are a couple of things that set reptiles apart, and a few key ways you can tell which categories everyone belongs to. 

Alligator wades in swamp with plants
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What are reptiles?

Reptiles come from a special part of the animal kingdom called vertebrates. This also includes mammals like us, fish, birds, and amphibians. What makes us unique is that we all have backbones (hence the vertebrate part) that allow us to walk, swim, and fly. Other animals like insects do this differently because they have exoskeletons. So reptiles are one of five groups that also include humans and certainly most of the pets we keep in our household (unless you have a tarantula). 

What animals are reptiles?

Reptiles include a weird variety of animals that don’t necessarily seem to work together. After all, do turtles, lizards, and alligators really look that much alike? But when you dive into it, you see that they have a few things in common that also separate them from other animals. Other reptiles include tortoises, crocodiles, snakes, and many dinosaurs. That’s right; dinos, famous extinct animals, also belonged to this group, though they had some pretty big differences from modern reptilian fauna.

What are the characteristics of reptiles?

OK, so what exactly makes a reptile a reptile if they don’t look or act that much alike? What do a sea turtle and a rattlesnake have in common? First off, they’re all cold-blooded, at least today. There may have been others in history who were warm-blooded, such as some dinos. Being cold-blooded means they don’t make their own heat like we do. Humans don’t need to go into a sauna to stay at a warm temperature (though we still recommend it). But your bearded dragon must absorb heat from the environment in order to stay warm, and will slow down drastically and even go into hibernation if they get too cold. 

Chameleon walks across a wall against a blue sky
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cold-bloodedness is the main thing that these beasts all have in common, but there are many factors that most exhibit. For example, nearly all reptiles lay eggs, though a few snakes give birth to live young. They also generally have rough skin, different from fish scales, mammal fur, bird feathers, or slick amphibian skin that has to stay wet. Lastly, lots of reptiles live in or near water. Turtles, water snakes, marine iguanas, and crocodiles all spend most of their time in water. Of course, some desert snakes and lizards don’t go anywhere near the ocean so it’s certainly not always the case. 

What’s the difference between reptiles and amphibians?

If you’ve been following along, you know that reptiles and amphibians have quite a bit in common: they’re all cold-blooded tetrapods, which means four legs (even snakes: see why here). A couple of things help us distinguish between them, though. Think of the sea turtle versus an aquatic frog. Both spend almost their entire lives underwater but still breathe air through their lungs. Here’s the difference: frogs didn’t start out that way. Their larval stage is being a tadpole, an animal that breathes through gills and can only survive in water. Then they grow up, shed the gills, and usually spend some of their adult life on land. Sea turtles are the opposite because they go to land to lay eggs, which hatch as mini-turtles, no different from their adult counterparts. 

These special features also come with a few crucial care needs. Remember that your pet reptile can’t keep herself warm without a heat source, so it’s necessary to include a heating lamp or pad in one corner of the tank, and a cool area for rest. Additionally, many of these creatures need a water source or even a tank full of water in the case of aquatic turtle species such as red-eared slider. Lastly, if you do decide to breed them (only recommended for high-level pros), you’ll have to carefully maintain the eggs in a dry area to prevent mold. Your reptilian pal will love having his particular requirements taken care of.

Rebekkah Adams
Rebekkah’s been a writer and editor for more than 10 years, both in print and digital. In addition to writing about pets…
All reptile parents can make life easier with this essential heating-lamp hack
Two bearded dragons sunning

When you bring home a reptile or amphibian, you sign up to put a lot of work into temperature control. Nearly all reptiles need heating lamps or pads but they also need a cool spot, meaning you must have a setup that allows for both, with plenty of thermometers to confirm. Add in UV or other lights for a night/day cycle and you basically have a full-time job just keeping your buddies warm. But there are ways to cut down on the number of man-hours required, especially by installing timers and smart controls that adjust themselves with little input from humans. This is our heat-lamp hack to make the whole process a lot easier. 

What do I need for my reptile's enclosure?
Reptiles hail from everywhere in just about all habitats, which means you'll need to adjust your specifications based on what species you have. Even among lizards or snakes, for example, you could have one creature that needs warm and dry while another prefers hot and wet. Still some turtles spend almost their entire lives completely underwater. Your tank will take on an array of gadgets and gauges to keep your animals in optimum health, controlling temperature, light, and humidity. Maintaining these three things will be crucial to keeping your scaly pet alive. 
How do I automate my system?
When taking your tank to the next level, consider each piece separately. You don't want to treat the humidity the same as the lighting and both of those will be very different from heat. That means you'll likely be investing in multiple gadgets, each with a specific purpose to maintain optimum levels in your enclosure.
We'll start with the easiest because you can mostly set it and forget it for this one. Each animal has a slightly different sleep schedule and different lighting needs. Remember, many reptiles also want UV or specially colored bulbs. However, no matter what creature you have, you'll most likely want to simulate night and day, though not necessarily to correspond with the actual clock. That's because many reptiles, such as most geckos, are nocturnal and so you could have some of their "night" happen while it's waking hours for you. This only works if you can control the environment very closely of course. Regardless, many herpers keep their lamps on a timer that goes off and on at specific times or intervals. This will ensure that everything stays really consistent and there's no such thing as forgetting to turn the light off and keeping your animal up for too long. You will periodically need to check on it to make sure it's functioning properly, but this definitely qualifies as the easiest piece to get settled.

Read more
Gecko care: What you absolutely need to know before bringing one home
Gecko looks up at the camera

Ever wanted a pet with sticky fingers that can glide and lick its eyeballs with an incredibly long tongue? You won't find a puppy that can do those things. If you're looking for that level of acrobatics, try out something in the lizard family, like a leopard gecko, one of the most popular scaly pets. In addition to being just plain cool, geckos are relatively easy to keep and live up to 20 years! That's right. If you get a baby for your Kindergartener, you'll be sending the lizard off to college. But that's assuming your animal is kept properly, which is especially important when they're young and fragile. Here's everything you need to know about gecko care.

What type of pet parents should adopt a gecko?
Everyone who's interested in gecko adoption and has the time and space to commit to it! We recommend the leopard or crested for a first-time herp-parent but once you have that down, there are 2,000 breeds to consider that hail from across the globe (geckos are found on all continents except Antarctica). They also require some specialized feeding and care, which just means you need to ensure that you're really committed before bringing your new pal home.
Gecko care: What does a gecko need?
As mentioned, there are a few things you probably don't know if you're new to the slimy side of pet ownership. Geckos need to stay warm and wet and full of insects, so you will find yourself developing a whole new set of skills once you bring your new little guy home.
We always say the habitat has to come first, long before you even go pet shopping. It's just too tempting to buy a cutie right there and then frantically try to set up their enclosure. Gather all their things at least a week in advance and spend some time setting it up. The exact temp and humidity level varies by species but all of these lizards want a warm spot and a cool spot.

Read more
5 best reptile heating pads to keep your little friend warm
Lizard suns on a rock under a heat source

Lizards, snakes, turtles, and tortoises are all reptiles, which means they have a few specific needs you'll want to think about before bringing them home. Most importantly, most reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning they can't make their own body heat and instead need to absorb heat from the environment around them. As you might guess, this means they like warm, sunny places to bask in order to keep their temperature (and therefore their energy level) up. When you bring home a reptile, it's important to make sure you have a heating pad or your animal will quickly get too cold and might even slip into hibernation. Not sure where to start? Here are some of the best reptile heating pads. 

Tikaton Reptile Heat Pad - Temperature Adjustable Under Tank Heater
A versatile heating pad, this one can go under the tank or stick to the side to diffuse heat. It's important to note, though, that placing any heating pad on top of furniture could cause permanent damage as they're really only made to go on glass or another temperature-resistant material. There are also two different sizes you can choose from depending on your housing and setup. We do recommend putting the heater on one side rather than the front or back, which allows a more secluded basking area that warms a section of the tank rather than the whole thing. A user loves the fact that it can be adjusted to different temperatures, remarking, "Works great! Nice heat control. Purchased this to use with our leopard gecko, works great for a 10 gallon tank. Highly recommend!!!"
FREESEA Aquarium Heater Fish Tank Submersible Heater (50W/75W/100W) with LED Temperature Display
We know it's for fish, but hear us out. This one works great for any marine reptiles that really need a heater that can be immersed in the water to heat it a little better. While you absolutely want warmer and cooler areas, you do need a baseline water temperature that won't get too low and cause your aquatic turtle to go into a stupor. Unlike other heating pads that don't do well in water, this one has to be submerged. It runs very efficiently, shutting off when the water reaches the desired temperature and turning back on when it drops, just like the thermostat in your house. Commenters mention that even though it's really designed for fish, it's still "Turtle approved," and one fan even remarks, "My hatchlings love to float over top of it, and they even sleep on it sometimes!"
KABASI Reptile Heating Pad, 14W / 20W Waterproof Reptile Heat Pad Under Tank Terrarium with Temperature Control
This highly energy-efficient and energy-saving heating pad "Works perfectly," according to one reviewer. It goes underneath the tank but does a good job of warming the substrate and delivering heat into the housing. While the pad cannot go in the water itself for long periods of time, you can feel free to clean it with a damp rag since it's mostly waterproof. Your beardie, leopard gecko, or tortoise will thank you for keeping them safe and toasty. Remember to include a thermometer and hygrometer so you don't overheat or under-moisten your habitat.
The best reptile heating pad with thermostat: iPower Reptile Heat Pad 4W/8W/16W/24W Under Tank Terrarium Warmer
The ultimate in a thermometer and heating pad mix, this one's temperature is controlled so you can choose your setting and monitor your tank as needed. It displays the temperature as either Fahrenheit or Celsius and has a range between 40 and 108 degrees, which means you can warm to just about any level that you need for your animal (and make sure that it stays there). You'll also have better insulation across the mat so it works well if you need something a bit more uniform or want to heat a larger area. A happy corn snake owner highly recommends this heating pad and says, "The heat pad hasn’t fallen off & provides good heat throughout the night."
Repticare Rock HeaterMini
More than just a heating pad, this "Awesome Secondary Heat Source," as one happy reviewer puts it, will look good and add a little warmth to your tank. Keep in mind, unlike many pads, it doesn't have any form of temperature control and some users mention that they cover it just to make sure it doesn't wind up burning their pets. One extra bonus is that you can add it as part of the decor and it won't burn your furniture or block your view of your animal as some others will. Even birds and mammals like this, and it's great for bearded dragons or box turtles too (although it is not a good fit for marine reptiles).

Read more