Have you ever wondered how snakes feed their babies?
What kind of parenting skills do snakes have, anyway?
Every animal reproduces.
Creating and raising the next generation is a vital part of life.
Every animal must take care of its young in its own way.
A dolphin will nurse her calf; a human mother will nurse her baby.
But how do snakes nurse their young?
Snakes do not nurse their young. Instead, newborn snakes receive nutrients from their egg or sac yolk and quickly become self-sufficient once born.
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Why Don’t Snakes Nurse Their Young?
When a mother nurses her baby, she is using milk she internally produces.
This process is called lactation.
However, snakes, like all reptiles, do not lactate.
They do not possess mammary glands, which are essential for producing milk.
In fact, lactating is an ability belonging only to mammals.
Other classes of animals, like fish, also do not nurse their young.
Non-lactating animals have different ways of feeding and caring for their babies.
How Do Snakes Feed Their Young?
If snakes don’t nurse their babies, how do they feed them?
The answer may surprise you – they don’t!
Snakelets are born fully mature and developed.
After a brief waiting period, they will be ready to fend for themselves.
Until they’re ready to hunt, the babies live off the nutrients existing in their bodies before they were born.
Baby snakes typically experience their first shed a week after birth.
Then, they’re ready to venture out on their own into the world!
What Do Baby Snakes Eat?
Since snakelets are fully developed, they have the same diet as their adult counterparts.
The only difference is the size of the food they can swallow.
Each variety of snake has a different diet, but every snake is carnivorous.
Babies will find smaller prey to eat like newborn mice, bugs, or small frogs.
Snakes Are Born in Different Ways
There are a lot of differences in how snakes are born and how they care for their babies.
It entirely depends on the variety of the snake.
Around 70 percent of snakes are egg-producing.
Scientists use the term, oviparous, to refer to egg-laying snakes.
The remaining 30 percent give birth to live young.
The term for this is viviparous.
Some snakes do a combination of both – mothers will hold eggs inside them until they’re ready to hatch.
The babies will hatch inside the mother and will be live-birthed.
This is known as ovoviviparity (“partial live birth”).
Some snakes don’t parent their babies at all.
Others tend to their eggs until they hatch, then they leave the snakelets to fend for themselves.
And still, others watch over their young until it’s time for them to leave the burrow.
Oviparous Snakes (Born From Eggs)
Babies get their first nutrition from the yolk inside their eggs.
As a snake embryo develops, it will consume the yolk.
It will also receive some outside moisture and oxygen permeating through the eggshell.
Egg-laying snakes usually don’t care for their babies at all!
Mothers will deposit their clutch of eggs in a safe place, then leave them there.
An ideal place to deposit eggs is somewhere warm, dark, and damp from surrounding vegetation.
The babies will hatch and need to fend for themselves instantly.
There are exceptions to this rule.
Cobras and python mothers will watch over their eggs and their hatchlings until the babies are ready to leave the burrow.
This process of parenting is exhausting for an African python mother.
From the time she is initially pregnant to the time her babies leave home, she won’t hunt or eat anything.
She could lose up to 40 percent of her body weight!
She even turns black (African pythons are typically brown) to absorb more heat to keep her eggs warm.
The African python mother will coil around her eggs.
Once the babies hatch, they will aggregate with their mother, meaning they will all cuddle together to keep warm.
Viviparous Snakes (Live-Birthed)
Viviparity (giving live birth) is the rarest form of reproduction in snakes.
Only a few snake varieties, like boas and water snakes, give live birth.
This means babies develop in a placenta and a yolk sac similar to mammals.
Unborn snakes receive sustenance from the nutrients in their amniotic sac.
Once born, these nutrients will tide the snakelets over until their first shed when they begin hunting.
Ovoviviparous Snakes (Partially Live-Birthed)
Ovoviviparity (giving partial live birth) is much more common in snakes.
It is a combination of laying eggs and giving live birth.
Because the process is similar to viviparity, scientists sometimes debate whether it should be considered a separate category.
Rattlesnakes and garter snakes are a few examples of ovoviviparous snakes.
Mothers will retain their clutches of eggs inside their bodies, hosting the young snakes until they’re ready to be born.
Ovoviviparous babies develop in a soft and permeable eggshell.
They get nourished from the egg yolk, and nutrition and oxygen pass from mother to child through the thin egg membrane.
When the babies are ready to be born, they hatch inside the mother; then, they give birth to live young.
Why Some Snakes Give Live Birth
There are many good reasons why certain snakes evolved into live-birthing animals.
- Protecting unhatched eggs from predators: it’s dangerous to leave defenseless unborn babies unattended.
- Protecting the mother from predators: a mother is at risk when she is pregnant and weaker from not eating.
- Environmental influences: tree snakes rarely come down from their perches; water snakes rarely come to shore.
A lot of venomous snakes give live birth.
Scientists think it’s because the babies are much safer inside a venomous mother than being left defenseless inside their unhatched eggs.
Staying inside their mother until fully developed gives them a much better chance of survival.
How Rattlesnakes Care for Their Young
Rattlesnakes have a few unique qualities.
Some of their parenting techniques are different from many other live-birthing snakes.
Most viviparous snakes will leave their babies to fend for themselves right after birth.
But rattlesnakes keep their newborn snakelets close to home.
Rattlesnake babies are thought to have a predator-attracting odor.
Their mothers will guard the babies in their den.
Like African pythons, some rattlesnake mothers change to darker skin color to retain more heat and keep their babies warm.
They will aggregate in their den with their young.
If their babies start to stray too far from home, mothers will warn them with a tapping motion.
Once rattlesnake babies shed for the first time, they too are ready to leave the den and journey into the world.
Now we know how snakes nurse their young; they don’t!
They have different methods to give their babies nourishment.
Baby snakes rely on the yolks inside their eggs or placentas, which they eat as they develop into fully mature newborn snakes.
Baby snakes eat the same carnivorous diet as their parents, just in smaller portions.
Some snake mothers will deposit their eggs and leave them to hatch later.
Others will guard their eggs and keep them warm until they hatch but won’t care for their snakelets at all.
Others will guard their newborn babies until the snakelets can hunt.
Regardless of individual parenting styles, baby snakes are born into this world fully mature and ready to get their lives started!