14/03/2018 11:23 SAST | Updated 14/03/2018 12:09 SAST

A Snake That Looks After Its Kids? Wits Has Just Discovered One

It is one of the few reptiles on the planet to look after its children after they are hatched.

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World-renowned reptile expert, Professor Graham Alexander from Wits' School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, has found that female southern African pythons not only incubate their eggs, but they also stay at the nest caring for their babies for about two weeks after the eggs have hatched.

Alexander's groundbreaking research defies widely held stereotypes about snakes – that they are animals that don't care for their young. But this perception, the professor says, comes from a lack of research into snakes in general.

"This is the first report of maternal care of babies in an egg-laying snake ever," says Alexander, who found that the snake babies spend the nights protected and warmed in their mother's coils, secure in the nest chamber.

What makes the discovery even more amazing, is the extent to which these snakes will go to look after their young, nearly killing themselves to warm their cold bodies.

"Efficient basking is probably crucial for incubation. Unlike some other python species, southern African pythons are unable to warm their eggs by elevating their metabolism. Instead, our pythons bask near to the burrow entrance until their body temperature is almost 40 °C (within a few degrees of lethal temperatures), and they then coil around the eggs to warm them with their sun-derived body heat.

"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," the professor explains.

Watch Professor Alexander explain more about the research in the video below: