At AllThingsNature, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What Is a Scute?

E.A. Sanker
E.A. Sanker

A scute is a bony plate or shield-like scale found on the skin of some reptiles, birds, and mammals. Although similar in appearance to scales, scutes have different origins and properties. Some scientists speculate that the structures may provide clues to the early evolution of feathers, since many dinosaurs, widely considered as closely related to birds, also had scutes.

Reptiles with prominent scutes include crocodiles, alligators, and turtles. Scutes on alligators and crocodiles are the bony, ridged plates that make up the animal’s tough skin, protecting it from predators and possibly helping it regulate its temperature. These scutes have a bony base and are known as osteoderms.

Turtles have a prominent scute.
Turtles have a prominent scute.

In turtles and tortoises, the entire carapace, or upper shell, is a structure of fused scutes. The scutes running down the center of the shell along the spine are called central scutes. The next rows of scutes on either side of the spine are called costal scutes, and the outer scutes are known as marginal scutes. The plastron or underside of the turtle’s shell is also made up of scutes.

Crocodiles have scutes.
Crocodiles have scutes.

Each scute forms in a lower layer of the skin, the dermis, under the epidermis. It may contain bone at its base, in which case it is known as an osteoderm. The rest of the scute consists of a fibrous protein, also found in horns, known as keratin. Unlike snakes and lizards that shed their entire outer layer of skin, animals with these structures shed only the outer layer of keratin. Scales are distinct from scutes in that they develop out of the epidermis rather than the dermis.

Scutes are the bony ridges that make crocodile skin so tough.
Scutes are the bony ridges that make crocodile skin so tough.

Birds and mammals, like reptiles, can have scutes. In birds, they are dermal structures on the feet. Mammals such as armadillos and pangolins have plate-like osteoderms that form a layer of armor. As in crocodilians, scutes in mammals serve a protective function.

Researchers investigating the ancestry of birds have used scutes as a possible lead in finding the origin of feathers. It has been theorized that feathers evolved from reptilian scales, but testing has revealed that feathers and scales are genetically and chemically different. Scutes, on the other hand, may be genetically more closely linked with feathers. It is even possible that scutes evolved from feathers, rather than vice versa.

Fossil discoveries have indicated that many dinosaurs likely had feathers, and that feathers themselves may be a more primitive characteristic than previously thought. If this is true, it is possible that birds and dinosaurs evolved from a common feathered ancestor. Some scientists speculate that the scute could have developed from an early feather structure on an ancestral organism of this type.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a scute?

A scute is a thickened, external shield-like bony or horny plate found on the body of various animals, including turtles, crocodiles, and some lizards. It serves as a form of armor that protects against predators, environmental hazards, and can assist in regulating body temperature.

How do scutes differ from scales?

Scutes are often confused with scales, but they differ in structure and function. Scales are typically smaller, overlapping plates that cover the skin of fish and reptiles, providing protection and aiding in locomotion. Scutes, on the other hand, are larger, non-overlapping, and more rigid, offering a higher level of protection.

Can scutes provide any insight into the age of an animal?

In some species, like turtles, the growth rings on scutes can give a rough estimate of age, especially in younger animals. However, as turtles age, these rings can become less distinct, making it challenging to determine their exact age solely based on scute analysis.

Do scutes serve any purpose beyond protection?

Yes, scutes have functions beyond mere protection. In certain species, they play a role in thermoregulation, as their color and positioning can influence heat absorption from the environment. Additionally, scutes can aid in reducing water resistance for aquatic animals, and in some cases, they may have sensory functions or be used for display during mating rituals.

Are scutes found on all reptiles?

No, scutes are not found on all reptiles. While common in turtles, crocodilians, and some lizards, many other reptiles, such as snakes and some lizard species, have scales instead. The presence of scutes is specific to certain evolutionary lineages within the reptile group.

Can scutes regenerate if they are damaged?

The ability to regenerate scutes varies among species. Turtles, for example, cannot regenerate scutes; damage to a scute is permanent. However, the underlying bone can heal, and new keratin layers may partially cover the damage over time. In contrast, some lizards can regenerate lost tail scutes to a certain extent after shedding or autotomy.

Discussion Comments


( From an ardent observer and fossil collector with no formal education). Counting the ( annual?) growth rings resulting from the Sub-dermal plate osteoderm’s expansion from the deep tissue upward through the dermis to form the scute, most always results in +/- 17 rings in late Cretaceous theropods . Earlier specimens from the Jurassic period seem to average +/- 30 . What might be inferred from these observations?

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Turtles have a prominent scute.
      Turtles have a prominent scute.
    • Crocodiles have scutes.
      Crocodiles have scutes.
    • Scutes are the bony ridges that make crocodile skin so tough.
      By: gijssmulders
      Scutes are the bony ridges that make crocodile skin so tough.