Are any reptiles good mothers?



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    Well, what is a ‘good’ mother — I would argue that our (human) definition of good mothering is rather narrow, even among mammals. Many creatures opt for a more hands-off parenting strategy, taking a quantity-over-quality approach to reproduction. Mice, for instance, simply have so many offspring that a handful are bound to survive, investing comparatively little time and energy into the raising of each litter. This ‘shotgun’ approach to reproduction is known as r-selection among biologists. It is contrasted with K-selection. K-selected species produce only a few offspring at a slow rate, but invest much more in nurturing them to ensure that the few they do raise are successful. Humans are a decidedly K-selected species. Important note: this is a continuum, and many species fall somewhere in between the two extreme.

    Brief ecology 101 lecture aside, a few reptiles are in fact ‘good’ mothers. You may be surprised to learn that the most caring mothers in the reptilian world are crocodilians: in particular, alligators and the saltwater crocodile. ‘Salties’, as they’re colloquially known in Australia (and to those of us who grew up watching The Crocodile Hunter) are the largest living reptiles, with females around 10 feet long on average (and males able to reach almost 20 feet).

    Mother Saltie will build a nest for her eggs — a heaping mound of vegetation. The plant matter will rot over time, releasing heat which will maintain the appropriate temperature for her eggs. For three months, the female stays near the nest, guarding her clutch of 60-80 eggs with a ferocity that would make a momma bear blush. When the eggs finally hatch, the young will call out to the mother from inside the nest — at which point she will carefully dig them out. She may even pick up unhatched eggs and give them a delicate bite to help crack the shell so her offspring can get out. (Keep in mind, she does this with jaws known the world over for their sheer killing power.) The young will stick with heir mother, under her protection, until they grow large enough and disperse on their own.

    Crocodile Smile

    The American alligator follows a similar reproductive pattern, though (no offense to our ‘gators) they are not as scary as salties, and don’t provide as stark a contrast between Prehistoric Killing Machine and Mother of the Year.

    As if that wasn’t surprise enough, another world-famous killer is also an exception to the rule of reptilian negligence. King cobras are the largest venomous snakes in the world, have some of the most potent venom known to man, and they are the only snake to build a nest. Much like the aforementioned salties, king cobras build nests of rotting vegetation to incubate and otherwise protect their eggs. Females guard the nest during incubation, and even the male sticks somewhere in the general vicinity of the nest.

    King Cobra

    As a rule, though, reptiles lean toward low parental investment (and a bit more toward r-selected). They lay a clutch of eggs and leave it be. Consider sea turtles, which come ashore in beaches en masse to lay their eggs in the soft sand. Then they simply swim away, and the baby turtles all hatch together and make a mad dash for the waves. It’s a feast for all sorts of predators, but a handful of the young manage to make it — enough to keep the population going. And that, in biological terms, is ‘good’ mothering — simply ensuring that your offspring will have a chance to survive and reproduce. It’s not quite so warm and cuddly, but it’s undeniably effective.


    Wikipedia: r/K-selection Theory

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