Maternal behavior in the South African python, Python natalensis

A brooding North African Python, Python sebae. This species is larger than the
South African Python, but both species brood their eggs. J. Lanki Wikipedia Commons

The South African python, Python natalensis, lays eggs, and displays behaviors and attributes that seem directed toward her offsprings’ survival, both before and after hatching. Alexander (2018), studies maternal behavior in these snakes over a seven-year period. In this field study, Alexander fitted female pythons with temperature-logging and tracking devices, and also had cameras recording the snakes’ behavior around their dens. In all, 37 pythons were tracked, resulting in over 2,000 observations.

Of the eight female pythons Alexander observed, seven used other animals’ burrows for their nest sites, and they laid their eggs about 6.5 to 20 feet from the entrance.

These animals can’t maintain a constant body temperature, as do mammals and birds. Thus keeping their eggs and hatchlings warm is a major challenge. The female pythons cope in two ways. First, breeding females change color — from a mixture of mottled browns to almost uniformly black — which neither males nor non-breeding females do at the same time of year. The darker skins mean more heat absorption from the sun and thus a significantly higher body temperature than non-breeders.

The brooding females emerged from their burrows to bask in the sun, raising their body temperatures twice per day. The rest of the time they remained coiled around the eggs, and once the young hatched, they coiled around them, presumably keeping them warm. By 2-3 days of age, the young pythons had begun to emerge from the den and bask on their own.

Breeding females do not leave their young to hunt or eat, and thus their body condition deteriorates over the breeding season. Mother snakes lost an average 38.3% body mass (range from 34.8– 41.5%) and appeared to be in poor condition during and after the breeding event.

The mother remains by the nest for up to about 3 weeks after the young have hatched, thus continuing to provide warmth. Post-hatching, the young are hampered by the presence of large amounts of yolk in their stomachs, and this would hamper their movements if they had to become independent earlier.

Alexander GJ. 2018. Reproductive biology and maternal care of neonates in southern African python (Python natalensis). Journal of Zoology 2018; DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12554