The slithery little newborn pictured here is a milk snake (or milksnake) — a breed whose name derives from the myth about its ability to drink from a cow’s udder. While there’s sadly no truth to it (these serpents certainly don’t have the ability to suck milk from a teat!), the name has stuck.
While the amount varies from breed to breed, female milk snakes lay between three and twenty eggs. They mate in May to late June and lay eggs in June and July. The mothers, keen to keep their offspring safe, hide their eggs in undergrowth, often favoring rotting vegetation and logs. The eggs incubate for around two months before hatching in August or September.
Around seventy percent of snakes are oviparous, or egg-laying. Some retain their eggs in their stomachs until the baby snakes are ready to hatch live, in what is known as an ovoviviparous birth.
Moms that retain their eggs tend to be found in cooler climates. This makes a lot of sense: as eggs need warmth to develop, trying to incubate them at the right temperature in colder conditions would be a difficult challenge.
When the time for hatching comes, ovoviviparous snakes lay their ‘eggs’. The live young come out encased in shells of clear membrane, which have been described as ‘beads on a string’. In order to break out of this membrane, the babies come equipped with an egg tooth on the tip of their noses — just as those incubated inside a regular egg do.
You might think that snakes that have live births have fewer young than those that lay eggs. In fact, they can still produce just as many. Garter snakes, for example, can give birth to as many as 80 live babies at a time, with the current record being 98 babies! Sounds exhausting!
Whatever way female snakes give birth, a lot of energy and sacrifice goes into giving their young a good start in life. In order to lay their eggs, snake moms need to find a place that is warm, damp and well out of the way of predators.
Snake moms who are expecting will often travel a long way to find the perfect place to lay eggs, frequently returning to the same location year after year. Sometimes a group of mothers — and even other reptiles — will all use the same spot, leaving a veritable graveyard of empty eggshells in their wake.
Not all mothers will disappear after egg-laying. Some stay near the site to protect it from predators. The eggs are delicate and need optimum conditions in order to develop into healthy young. If the temperature around the eggs is too hot or cold, for example, death and deformities may occur.
Hard work and sacrifice are in the lexicon for those snakes that give birth to live snakes, as well. Due to the eggs weighing her down, the mother’s movement is hindered, which makes her more vulnerable to predators. With all those eggs inside her, there’s also less room for food, meaning she won’t eat much while she carries her young. And as well as that, she has to shuttle between sun and shade to keep the eggs inside at a perfect temperature. That’s certainly a lot of effort, especially when you’re hungry!
While all snake mothers work hard, there are some true supermoms among them. The European common grass snake, for example, travels far and wide to find warm and moist cow dung to lay her eggs in. While this might not seem the most auspicious — or even hygienic — site, the decomposing manure actually gives off enough heat to keep the eggs toasty warm. See, mother knows best — even if it does involve dung!
Another honorable mention must go to momma mud snakes, which have been known to lay their eggs in alligator nests. Mother alligators are fierce protectors of their nests and young, and the imposter mud snake eggs will benefit from this protection too. A cheeky strategy, but an impressive one!
Python mothers are pretty impressive, too. Their job is especially hard because python eggs need to stay within five degrees centigrade or they may not develop properly . Mom’s answer? To coil herself around the eggs and, in some cases, ‘shiver’ to raise the temperature if it falls. Only strong and large pythons can perform this shivering trick, and even then it may delay breeding for two to three years afterwards because the snakes lose up to half their body weight in the process. Other pythons that don’t shiver still protect the eggs with their body. What’s more, if the mother senses that the eggs are starting to dry out, she will sometimes drink water and then urinate on them. Real nice, mom! (But we know its only ‘cos you care.)
As we have seen, snake moms take very good care of their babies before they hatch. While there are a few instances of a mother sticking around after hatching (some pit vipers, for example, will stay until the first moult) baby snakes are essentially on their own. But this doesn’t mean they can’t defend themselves. Indeed, in many cases they outdo their parents in aggression and venom. Let’s hope they remember how much care and attention their mom put into giving them a good start in life!