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!

Captive Breeding of Dwarf Day Geckos – From Issue 1, May 2012

The Reptile Times

day gecko header

By Jennifer Greene

Some of the most stunning geckos available today are the geckos of the Phelsuma genus, in addition to select species of the Lygodactylus genus.  Fortunately for keepers, many of the smaller Phelsuma species such as Lined Day Geckos, Peacock Day Geckos, or even the exotic looking Klemmeri Day Geckos are readily available in the reptile hobby, making it easy to keep your very own rainforest jewels at home!  If breeding these geckos is your ultimate goal, I recommend using a cage larger than the bare minimum – for example, for my Electric Blue Geckos I use and recommend an 18 x 18 x 24” terrarium.  This can be suitable for a small group of dwarf geckos, with one male and up to 3 females, or for a single pair of Klemmeri geckos.  For the slightly larger Peacock Day Geckos or Green Day Geckos, the new larger terrariums manufactured by Exoterra are recommended whenever possible, especially if you plan on housing more than just one pair of geckos in the cage!  The large sizes of these cages allow for the use of bulbs such as the Powersun bulb, which is what I use at home.  The intense light and UVB keeps your geckos’ colors bright and vivid, and the nice, hot basking area will create zones within your cage that the females will utilize to select egg laying sites.

Day Gecko Setup

Above is a perfect example of a small day gecko setup!

Large cage sizes also allow for the female(s) to escape the attention of the amorous male.  Male geckos in nearly every species are quite determined, and will attempt to mate constantly, making it important for the health of the female to provide her with numerous places to hide and get away from him.  The male’s courtship display is distinct and somewhat comical.  When the female comes into sight, he will lift up his entire body, bobbing his head and wiggling his tail at her.  With each fit of bobbing, he will edge closer and closer to the female, until he is close enough to touch her, and then breed with her. She will either indicate readiness to mate with reciprocal head bobbing, tail wiggling, and general in-place squirming, or she will reject the male by biting him on the head or simply running away.   Mating will take place year round if the cage is kept warm enough, although this can be quite draining on the female.  A winter cool down, with nighttime temperatures dropping below 75 degrees, is usually enough to stop egg laying for a few months, which allows the female to recuperate.  I provide a heat pad on the side of the cage for my geckos, and allow nighttime temperatures to dip into the high 60s/low 70s for 3 to 4 months a year.

breeding day geckos

2 of the author’s geckos in the breeding process

You will begin to see the female swell up with eggs about a week after copulation is noted, and after about 3 to 4 weeks, she will lay a clutch of one or two eggs.  When eggs are laid, they are pasted to a surface within the cage that the female deems suitable.  In a planted vivarium, this can be anywhere, and once established in her cage the female’s choice of egg laying sites is impeccable in leading to high hatch rates.  She will lay them around the lining of the top of the cage, on plants, in wood crevices, nearly anywhere in the cage above ground.  Keep the cage humid without getting the eggs themselves wet, whenever possible – for mine at home, I run a fogger 4 times a day, for ½ an hour each time, in addition to light spraying with a mister in the morning.  Little additional maintenance is required to encourage these eggs to hatch; providing your female with a large, planted vivarium that she thrives in will also provide a suitable environment for egg development.  Females will continue to lay eggs every 3 to 4 weeks for the duration of the breeding season, which is most of the year.

fogged terrarium

An interesting note – sometimes females can and will consume eggs.  They will almost always consume the shells of hatched eggs, and often do so within the first 24 hours of the babies hatching.  My females have always consumed the eggshells, and will often eat infertile eggs as well. They seem able to detect something about the eggs that is not good, as sometimes they will leave the eggs for several weeks before consuming them.  When I have caught them in the act, the insides of the eggs have indicated that they had no embryo inside.  They will sometimes even consume freshly laid, infertile eggs – the female Electric Blue pictured here ate her own egg within minutes of laying it.  She has not been with a male in several months, and the egg was undoubtedly infertile.

gecko eating egg

One of the author’s geckos eating an egg just a few weeks ago!

Incubation time can vary wildly from as little as 2 months for eggs laid close to the heat source to up to 4 months for eggs laid further away or during cooler months of the year.  I have even had one egg laid in November hatch in March – an incubation period of about 5 months!  If you are only keeping dwarf geckos in your vivarium, it is possible to just leave the neonate geckos in the cage with the adults. All of my babies have been raised this way, and from personal communication with others who have successfully bred these geckos, this seems to be the most common way to successfully raise hatchlings. I have even observed babies watching adults feeding from the powdered gecko food placed out for them, and once the adults have left the babies will head down to the food and eat as well.  In addition to gecko food, babies will also feed on springtails, pinhead crickets, fruit flies, and other tiny invertebrates found within the cage and substrate of an established and well planted vivarium.  Supplementation should be very minimal, as these babies are tiny and need only minute amounts of vitamins to grow properly.  To be frank, I have never intentionally provided extra supplementation for my baby geckos – they get what they need from the gecko MRP (which has vitamins in it) or on the rare occasion among the small dusted crickets provided for the adults, a few pinheads that they can eat are in there as well.

baby williamsi day gecko

Once they are about 3 to 4 months of age, most geckos are well started enough to consider moving to their own enclosures.  Between 4 and 6 months of age, they begin to develop sexable characteristics, although it can still be difficult to sex them accurately until they are over a year old.    Raising the baby geckos can be one of the most rewarding aspects of keeping them, and it is difficult to think of anything more adorable than a newly hatched dwarf gecko.