Some snakes give birth to live young, but pythons lay eggs. Many animals that lay eggs will guard them and keep them warm, but then evict the young once they hatch. Researchers at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa filmed one southern African python living in a burrow with her hatched young, keeping them warm and protecting them.
At lengths reaching up to 16 feet, ᴄᴏʟᴅ-ʙʟᴏᴏᴅᴇᴅ southern African pythons are not the type of mothers you want to mess with. Alexander studied the snakes using radio transmitters and by installing cameras into their egg-laying burrows underground for seven years in the Dinokeng Game Reserve north of Pretoria. While live-birth giving vipers have been observed showing maternal behavior, his discovery is the first example of egg-laying snakes caring for their young after hatching.
They witnessed the snake curling around her eggs to keep them warm, and then when they hatched, she did the same thing. She protected them but didn’t feed them or teach them anything, though. The young remained with the mother for two weeks. The study, published in the Journal of Zoology, is “the first-ever report of maternal care of babies in an egg-laying snake,” Alexander said in a statement.
When he approaches mothers in the wild they are often a lot more timid than you might expect for such a large ᴘʀᴇᴅᴀᴛᴏʀ. “She just bolts for the hole,” he says, adding that mothers will occasionally show ᴀɢɢʀᴇssɪᴠᴇ behavior once inside.
It could also have to do with the development of their young. The newly hatched babies are awkwardly plump due to leftover undigested egg yolk. Alexander believes this is one of the reasons why the mothers hang around—the babies are less mobile, and hence more ᴠᴜʟɴᴇʀᴀʙʟᴇ at this stage of their life to ᴘʀᴇᴅᴀᴛᴏʀs. The mothers provide protection for the babies, and also the warmth to help them digest the egg yolk until they are mobile enough to find their own food, which usually consists of mice, rats, and small birds.
The scientists knew that breeding females change from their normal brown spotted pattern to black when breeding. He believes the black helps the ᴄᴏʟᴅ-ʙʟᴏᴏᴅᴇᴅ mothers absorb more sunlight when they bask in the sun, which they can subsequently transfer to their eggs or newly hatched snakelings back inside the burrow.
A mother python’s tolerance for her children doesn’t last long, though. After about two weeks, they will often ditch the kids permanently and set out, presumably to find something to ᴋɪʟʟ.