(Host) Who ever heard of socializing among poisonous snakes? Commentator Ruth Page says that scientists studying pit vipers have found that females care for eggs and young, and enjoy the company of sisters.
(Page) Snakes are loners, everybody knows that. Even the females, after they give birth, leave the babies on their own and head for the hills. This is another case where what “everybody knows” has been found to be mistaken, at least with the pit vipers.
In 1995 and thereafter, herpetologists (some call themselves “snakeophiles” because they really love snakes) studying rattlers discovered that after mating, the pregnant moms gathered together near protective rocks in large tangles of ropy, wriggling friendliness.
Photographs of such sisterly-looking gatherings excited other researchers, who set up experiments to try to figure out the social relationships of many species of pit vipers. Until the invention of radio-transmitters small enough to be put into a snake’s body cavity, it was just about impossible to study a single snake. You could catch and mark it all right, but your chance of ever running across it again was like counting on a single chance in the Irish Sweepstakes to bring you a fortune.
With radio tracking, scientists can keep tabs on a single animal. They’ve learned that snakes can be protective mothers. Python moms have been seen coiling around their eggs protectively for as long as eight weeks, without leaving to hunt for a meal.
How can a cold-blooded creature like a snake keep eggs warm? The same way bees warm a hive: by shivering. The rapid beat of their muscles generates warmth. Many pit vipers give birth to live young. In the hills of Arizona, two scientists watched a mother rattlesnake stay close to the rocks of the birth site, keeping the babies company for nine or ten days. When the young climbed out of the shelter, they slithered over mom’s body, one going right over her head, and she patiently waited. Not until the young snakes shed their skins and slithered off to start life on their own did mom leave. She hadn’t eaten for about 10 months, (truly!) but still stuck around for 10 foodless days until her babies could manage on their own.
Experiments have shown the following: a mother pit viper will start rattling a warning about an approaching human when he’s as much as four meters away, allowing time for babies to slide into the den; siblings spend much more time together than unrelated animals; when mothers and young were divided by a barrier through which babies could slip but the large moms couldn’t, the babies did; with a barrier easy for a mom to climb but impossible for the babies, moms climbed over to be with the babies.
This is Ruth Page, as surprised by maternal pit viper behavior as I was when I read that earwig females go to some length to care for their eggs.