Despite their often scary reputation, are pythons actually caring parents? A seven-year-long observation of African rock pythons reveals that egg-laying snakes actually take care of their offspring.

Python Reputation

Snakes are not often associated with warmth and care. In fact, recent research found that humanity's fear of snakes and even spiders stems from our ancestors as a result of their coexistence with the feared creatures for millions of years.

Not the least of feared snakes are pythons, as they are some of the largest snakes on Earth. Now, however, researchers have found evidence showing that the African rock python, Africa's largest snake, actually has good parenting skills even to the point of sacrificing itself for its offspring. Though motherly sacrifice for the young is not so new in the animal kingdom, it is the very first evidence of such caring behavior among egg-laying snakes.

7-Year Fieldwork

A newly published paper describes the findings gathered from the seven-year observation of Wits University's Professor Graham Alexander on African rock pythons at the Dinokeng Game Reserve in Pretoria. Evidently, contrary to previously held beliefs regarding African rock python maternal care, or a lack thereof, they not only incubate their eggs but also stay with their offspring even after they have hatched.

For the duration of the intensive fieldwork, Professor Alexander's team observed 37 pythons with the help of radio transmitters and infrared video cameras. Eight of the tracked pythons were found to have laid their brood of eggs in aardvark burrows and their breeding behaviors were observed using the infrared video cameras.

African Rock Python Mothers

Evidently, African rock python mothers are rather protective of their offspring even at great cost to their own health. In fact, apart from basking near the burrow to warm their bodies and in turn, their eggs, these python mothers do not eat at all during the six-month breeding cycle and lose almost half of their weight.

"All of this takes its toll on mother pythons: they take a long time to recover after breeding and so can only produce a clutch every second or third year, depending on how many meals they are able to catch in the months after leaving the nest. Some of them never recover," said Professor Alexander.

Luckily, all of the snakes they recorded survived, although all of them did not breed the year after.

Snake Mothers

The study is actually the very first evidence of egg-laying snakes showing care for their offspring. Further, the results of the study show that there is more to snake behavior and parenting than the current knowledge, and that they, perhaps, are more caring than the current perception of them.

The paper is published in the Journal of Zoology.

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