Reptile reproduction differs drastically from mammalian reproduction. Most snakes lay eggs, and they don’t produce milk for their babies to drink. Snakes also care for their young differently.
We’ll explain why baby snakes don’t usually stay with their mothers and the rare exceptions to the rule. We’ll also look at how baby snakes defend themselves from predators in the wild.
- 1 How Do Snakes Reproduce?
- 1.1 How Do Snakes Give Birth to Babies?
- 1.2 What Time of Year Do Snakes Have Babies?
- 1.3 How Big Are Baby Snakes When They Are Born?
- 1.4 Identifying Baby Snakes
- 1.5 Do Baby Snakes Stay Close to Their Mother?
- 1.6 What Do Baby Snakes Eat?
- 1.7 What Should I Do If a Find a Baby Snake?
- 1.8 Other Related Articles:
How Do Snakes Reproduce?
The vast majority of snakes reproduce sexually. This means that there are male and female snakes, and one of each sex needs to get together to mate.
Male snakes have sexual organs called “hemipenes,” which are penises, except he has two of them. Most of the time, they sit inside the body inside-out, only everting when it’s time to mate.
Female snakes have ovaries, containing ova (egg cells) which develop either into eggs or embryos. This depends on whether the species of snake lays eggs, or gives birth to live young (which we’ll cover in the next section).
When a female snake is ready to mate, she produces pheromones which signal to male snakes that she’s receptive. She releases these pheromones and leaves a trail of them wherever she goes. If a male snake picks up on this scent, he’ll follow the trail until he finds her. The two snakes will mate.
The male penetrates the female with his hemipenes (male sexual organs). He deposits sperm into the female’s cloaca, which fertilizes her ova. The ova then grow into eggs, or into embryos, which develop inside the mother.
Interestingly, some types of snake can reproduce asexually. An example of this is the Brahminy Blind Snake, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. All Brahminy Blind Snakes are females, and they give birth through a process called parthenogenesis. Their eggs can develop without being fertilized, meaning that these snakes essentially clone themselves.
How Do Snakes Give Birth to Babies?
Not all snakes lay eggs. There are three different ways that snakes give birth to babies. The method of choice varies according to the snake’s species.
- Oviparous snakes lay eggs, just like birds. Around 70% of all known snakes are oviparous. Most snakes abandon their eggs as soon as they’re laid, never to return. However, some species (such as pythons) stay with their eggs until they hatch. They’ll wrap their bodies around the clutch, to keep them safe from harm.
- Ovoviviparous snakes, such as rattlesnakes, go a step further. The babies still develop inside eggs, but the eggs stay inside the mother until the babies are ready to hatch. This provides them with more protection. When the eggs hatch, the mother gives birth to live babies.
- In viviparous snakes, such as boa constrictors, no eggs are involved at all. The fertilized ova develop into embryos, which then develop inside the mother’s uterus, just like in mammals. Rather than receiving nourishment through egg yolk, the babies are attached to a placenta. Once the babies reach full term, the mother gives birth to them. Gestation varies between snakes, but in boa constrictors, it’s around four months.
When the babies emerge (either from their eggs or their mother), they are perfectly developed. They’re able to see, hear, sense and move just as well as their adult counterparts. Unlike mammals, baby snakes fend for themselves from birth.
What Time of Year Do Snakes Have Babies?
Most snakes reach sexual maturity between the ages of 2 and 3. On average, most species reproduce around once a year in the wild, occasionally twice. Snakes typically have many offspring at once (between 10 and 100), so there’s no need to breed more often than that.
So, when should you be on the lookout for baby snakes? It depends entirely on the species. It also depends on whether the snake is wild or captive, and what kind of environment they live in.
In the USA, most wild snakes breed in the spring. This is because winter is the time of year that snakes brumate (hibernate). After they wake up, they mate, to ensure that their babies will hatch (or be born) before the winter begins.
In live-bearing snakes, the gestation (pregnancy) period usually lasts two to three months. In rattlesnakes, it’s longer, taking about 5.5 months for babies to be born. For oviparous species, eggs typically take between five weeks and three months to hatch.
This means that babies are usually born in late summer – so from late July to early September. However, some snakes do reproduce twice a year, so it’s not by any means a finite rule. And in captivity, all bets are off. Snake owners typically keep temperatures consistent in their enclosures year-round and can breed at any time of year.
How Big Are Baby Snakes When They Are Born?
Again, this is a question that will depend entirely on which species of snake we’re talking about. The world’s smallest snake, the Barbados Threadsnake, is only around four inches long fully grown.
The largest snake in the world, the reticulated python, can reach 30 feet. So, as you can imagine, there is some discrepancy between hatchling sizes in different species.
On average, baby snakes are typically 3 to 20 inches long. To break things down even further, let’s look at the sizes of some common pet snakes, and wild snakes native to North America.
Garter snakes are the most common wild snake in the US. As adults, these snakes usually reach 2-3 feet in length. They give birth to live young, and the babies are around 6-8 inches long.
The term “rat snakes” covers many species. Many are found in the wild in the US, such as the black rat snake (sometimes referred to as just “black snake”).
The most common species of rat snake kept as a pet is the corn snake. Baby rat snakes are typically around 8 – 13 inches in length, species dependent.
Ball pythons, while not native to the US, are one of the most popular snake species kept as pets. The adults reach around 2-5 feet in length (with females being bigger than males). The hatchlings are usually approximately 10 inches long.
You definitely wouldn’t want to keep a rattlesnake as a pet, as they’re venomous. However, they are found in the wild all over the US.
There are many different species of rattlesnake and the babies of each one look slightly different. On average, though, they’re about 10 inches in length.
Identifying Baby Snakes
There aren’t many species of snake that look drastically different as babies. For the most part, it’s just their coloring which changes slightly as they age.
For example, baby black rat snakes have a brown pattern on their bodies. As they age, they lose this and turn solid black. Baby copperheads are born with a bright yellow-green tail tip, which they lose as they age.
Most baby snakes, though, can be identified using the techniques you would use for adult snakes. If you see one in the wild and you’re not sure what it is, though, stay away. It could be venomous, and baby snake venom is just as potent as adults’.
Do Baby Snakes Stay Close to Their Mother?
The vast majority of snakes aren’t particularly maternal. Snakes are precocial, meaning their babies hatch (or are born) fully prepared for the big wide world. They’ve got all of their senses and instincts, and they can catch prey by themselves.
It’s true that predators often target baby snakes. Because of this, baby snakes naturally possess the instinct to move quickly and hide from predators. Even if they do get eaten – which many do – snakes have so many babies that plenty will survive.
For this reason, there isn’t a need for baby snakes to stay with their mothers. Most oviparous snakes don’t even meet their babies, as they leave their eggs as soon as they lay them.
There are some exceptions, though:
- African Rock Pythons “brood,” meaning they protect their eggs while they’re developing. Once the babies hatch, the mothers guard them for up to two weeks. Though most pythons brood, most species leave their young as soon as they hatch.
- Many species of Viper, including rattlesnakes, guard their babies until they shed their skin for the first time. This amounts to around ten days after birth, according to an article in Biology of the Vipers.
- King Cobras are attentive mothers. They build large, elaborate nests for their eggs, to keep them safe as they develop. They do leave once the eggs are beginning to hatch, though.
It isn’t clear why some species have evolved to take care of their young, while others abandon their eggs after laying them. It may be due to the amount (and type) of predators in their native habitat.
What Do Baby Snakes Eat?
Baby snakes aren’t like mammals. Rather than drinking their mother’s milk, babies have to eat solid food straight away to survive. They must hunt for themselves.
Snake hatchlings are born with everything they need to catch their prey. They have excellent hunting instincts and can move very quickly to strike.
Species that constrict their prey, such as rat snakes, instinctively know how to squeeze their prey to death. Venomous species of snakes, like rattlesnakes, are born with fangs and venom ready to use.
However, wild baby snakes are not so picky about their food choices. They’ll pretty much eat any animal which is small enough to overpower and consume.
Baby snakes can eat:
- Baby mice, and other baby rodents such as voles, shrews, and chipmunks
- Insects such as worms, slugs, caterpillars, and crickets
- Small frogs and toads, and tadpoles
- Small bird eggs and baby birds
- Small fish
As you can see, there’s plenty of food to go around. As snakes get bigger, they’ll move on to larger versions of the above, depending on their species. Some snakes even eat other snakes.
What Should I Do If a Find a Baby Snake?
We know the following:
- Most mother snakes do not stay with their babies. Some never even meet them, abandoning their eggs while they’re still developing. A few select species do help to protect their young, but only for a maximum of 1-2 weeks.
- Snakes are precocial (their young are born fully developed). Baby snakes have everything that they need to survive without a mother’s help. They have inbuilt instincts to help them hunt and avoid predators. They eat baby rodents, lizards, frogs and birds, insects, small fish, and eggs.
If you find a baby snake in the wild, there’s no need to interfere with it. Baby snakes do not need your help – they can quite easily take care of themselves. It’s not the same scenario as if you’d found a baby rabbit or kitten without its mother.
Furthermore, just because baby snakes are small, doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. The young of venomous species (such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads) are born with fangs. Their venom is just as potent as that of an adult snake. If you try to pick one up, you might be bitten.
The same applies to finding baby snakes as it does to finding adult ones: leave them alone. They’ll be better off without your interference, and they won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them.
Furthermore, wild-caught snakes do not make good pets. They’re often aggressive with humans, and many cannot be tamed even after years of captivity.