Easier Than You Think: Maternal Incubation in Ball Pythons

Ball Python Maternal Incubation

by Jennifer Greene

Are you a beginner to ball python breeding?  Have you had trouble with successful hatch rates incubating your eggs artificially?  Are you curious about maternal incubation, and what’s involved to allow your female to successfully incubate her own eggs?   Then read on, and hopefully this article will help you on the path to successfully allowing your female to incubate her own eggs!

Before letting your ball python (or any snake species, for that matter) incubate her own eggs, you should prepare for this long before breeding even takes place.  I would not recommend allowing small or young females to maternally incubate, as they may not feed during this time and the extended period of non-feeding may be too much for them.  I generally only allow my females that are over 4 years old, and over 1800 grams (preferably in the 2,000 gram range) to maternally incubate their eggs.   Prep your girls by simply feeding them well and getting them into the best condition possible, with nice complete sheds and solid, good weight to them.  You want your girls as chunky as possible going into the breeding season, because again, they may or may not eat once they start incubating their eggs, and you don’t want the incubation process to drain them too severely.

female ball python

One of the author’s fat, healthy female ball pythons in the process of “building” prior to ovulating

Once you’ve selected the females that will be maternally incubating, proceed through the breeding process like usual.  For more information on this part, please refer to the numerous online caresheets, forums, and books currently available on the subject.  The only additional thing to consider is that if your female loses too much weight during the breeding season prior to ovulating, do not allow her to maternally incubate.  It is important that the female is in good condition throughout the entire process.

After your girl(s) have gone through the post-ovulation shed, begin readying their egg laying area.   If they are in a display cage, this can be an enclosed box slightly larger than the female with damp moss packed into it, or in a tub setup you can simply place damp moss throughout the warm side of the tub.  Watch your snake and tweak the cage conditions as needed – if she is laying directly on the heat, increase it by a few degrees until she is coiling just off to the side of the heat.  This way the eggs will be a consistent temperature, as often when they are laid directly on the heat source the bottom eggs can become over heated and go bad.  Be sure not to over-saturate the substrate or moss in the cage either, as this will also cause issues with the eggs.  It is easier to add a little more water, bit by bit, to the moss surrounding the female (and thus increase humidity that way) than it is to try and remove moisture if you have put too much in.  Too much moisture will kill the eggs much faster than not enough, so err on the side of dryness!

incubation tub

A tub set up and ready for maternal incubation

When your female begins to coil just off to the side of the heat, DON’T DECREASE THE HOT SPOT!  Most of the time the required high temperature is about 95 to 100 degrees; this needs to stay the same.  The female will select the spot that she will be able to maintain the correct 88 – 90 degree range of temperatures based on the conditions in the cage.  If you change the conditions in the cage, she cannot move the eggs, nor do much to increase her own temperature, and this can ultimately impact the temperature the eggs are incubated at.  Decreasing the hot spot by too much can result in longer incubation times, or if the temperatures get too cool, can even kill the entire clutch.

Once the eggs are laid, check the moss around the female, and ensure it stays damp.  Use of New Zealand Sphagnum moss is recommended, as it tends to last longer without molding or disintegrating than other types of moss.  To monitor temperatures, you can carefully slip the probe of a digital thermometer into the middle of the egg mass.  This will allow you to check on the temperatures of the eggs without disturbing the female too much, which is ideal.  Aside from providing fresh water daily, keep interaction with the female to a minimum at this point to keep stress as low as possible for her.  Once a week, check that the sphagnum moss is still damp (but not soaking wet).  Never, ever get the eggs themselves wet.  Only ever get moss or bedding around the female wet, and try to avoid saturating the bedding or moss.  Remember, it is easy to add a little water at a time until the ideal humidity is reached; it is significantly harder to remove it if you add too much.  Some noticeable dimpling, especially of the top eggs, is normal and should not be a cause for concern unless the eggs appear to be losing more than ¼ of their usual mass.

ball python with eggs

One of the author’s females incubating her eggs!

Average incubation time for maternally incubated clutches is not usually much shorter or longer than artificial clutches, so yours should hatch between 55 and 65 days.  I often start offering small rats to my incubating females during the last half of the incubation period.  Some females accept meals, some don’t.  Either is fine, but you just need to be cautious not to offer a prey item that is too large.   In the process of catching and constricting a large meal, there is the chance your female could disrupt her eggs, which naturally you want to avoid.  A female that refuses to eat the entire duration of incubation can be somewhat concerning to you as a keeper, but this is the exact reason you should always start with a female in the best possible condition.  Once the eggs hatch and the smell has been washed off of her, she should start feeding right away.

Once the babies start to pip, you can leave them alone in the cage until they have all hatched.  The female will not squish them, and will even adjust her coils so that they can poke their noses out to breathe.  It will take anywhere from a few hours up to 3 days for all the babies to emerge from their eggs, so be patient!  Once all the babies have emerged, remove them, and then completely clean the cage and soak the female.  It is necessary to thoroughly clean the cage as well as soak the female to remove all smell of the eggs and babies, as well as clean up the goop from hatching.  Any remaining smell of eggs/babies will result in the female continuing to coil and attempt to incubate whatever has the smell of the eggs.

ball python babies hatching

Hatchlings!

And that’s it!  Once you’ve set up one female to maternally incubate successfully, you will find each following maternal incubation to be easier and easier to set up and maintain.   I personally let most of my females incubate their own eggs, resorting to artificial incubation only for small or young females who are not as large or as heavy as I would prefer.  While you do not have the same degree of control over a maternally incubated clutch, the female does instinctually know exactly what to do.  The eggs may not look as pretty as they do when incubated artificially, but the babies come out in the exact same excellent shape!

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