Around 70% of the world’s 3,686 snake species reproduce by laying eggs.
This means that offspring complete part of their embryonic development outside of the mother’s body. These snakes are known as “oviparous”.
Notable examples of snakes that do not lay eggs are boas, sea snakes, and most vipers. Some give birth to live young and are known as “viviparous”. Others produce eggs that remain in the female’s body until birth. These are known as “ovoviviparous”.
Snake eggs can be difficult to distinguish from eggs of other species, but they do have some key identifying features.
It can be beneficial to know how to identify snake eggs in areas where egg-laying venomous snakes are present.
Table of Contents
- Snake eggs can easily be mistaken for those of birds and other reptiles
- Reptile eggs are soft and leathery compared to those of birds
- Snake eggs may be identified by their characteristic, elongated shape
- Snake eggs are typically laid in groups (“clutches”) and may appear stuck-together
- Healthy snake eggs are always white or off-white in color
- It is quite easy to incubate snake eggs, but reptile breeding is a big commitment
- Snake eggs are edible. None are known to be poisonous
How to Identify Snake Eggs
In this section, you will learn how to identify eggs that could belong to a snake.
Snake eggs can be difficult to tell apart from those of other reptiles. The best that can be done – in most cases – is to rule out common lookalikes. This can be done by identifying characteristics not possessed by snake eggs.
Note that some lizards and even turtles can lay eggs that are very “snakey” in appearance.
To quickly identify a clutch of eggs, check out our handy flow chart.
Recall that snakes tend to nest in tucked-away spaces.
Snakes (except for the king cobra) will not build a nest. Instead, they will find a sheltered depression in which to deposit their eggs directly. Snake eggs are usually found in loose dirt or under natural debris.
Other reptile eggs, such as those of turtles and lizards, may be found in similar places.
Clutches of snake eggs are laid very close to one another. Some may even appear stuck together.
At first glance, reptile and bird eggs can appear similar. Luckily, there are a few key differences to look for.
Most snake and lizard eggs are oval or oblong-shaped and are thinner than bird eggs. This can vary by species. Some snakes do lay eggs that can be similar in shape to a bird’s.
Near-spherical eggs are likely to belong to a turtle, such as a snapping turtle or softshell.
Reptile eggshells are softer and more pliable* than those of birds. They are usually described as feeling soft and somewhat “leathery” or “rubbery”.
*Note: Handling or turning snake eggs can harm the developing embryo. If you do move them, be sure to return them in the exact position in which they were found. Remember that most snakes are harmless and beneficial to the natural ecosystem.
Snake egg size is dependent on maternal body size. Eggs may be as small as a grain of rice, or larger than chicken eggs, depending on the species.
Most snake eggs are between 1 and 5 inches in length.
As a good rule of thumb, oblong-shaped eggs between one and five inches long are probably snake eggs. Eggs smaller than 1 inch probably belong to a lizard.
Reptiles do not lay colorful or speckled eggs like some birds. All snake eggs are off-white in color unless rotten.
Candling (Advanced Technique)
Herpetologists and reptile breeders use a technique called “candling” to identify eggs. Though tricky to learn, this technique can distinguish snake embryos from those of other reptiles.
In a dark room, hold an egg against a targeted light source. Be sure to avoid turning the egg at all costs, as this can kill embryos. The shell should appear translucent, revealing the embryo inside.
All embryos will appear similar to the untrained eye. Snake embryos are typically round in appearance.
Note that it is very difficult for an untrained person to distinguish snake species based on their eggs.
What to Do if You Find Snake Eggs on Your Property
If you find snake eggs in your yard, you may be worried that they present a hazard.
Remember, the vast majority of snakes are harmless to humans.
In North America, most venomous snakes actually give birth to live young. The coral snakes are the only North American species that lay eggs and possess potent venom.
Coral snakes are found only in the following US states:
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
- North Carolina
North American snake eggs are most likely to belong to a harmless species.
Check with your local wildlife trapper or pest control center if you are concerned. They may be able to help you identify coral snake eggs.If you are looking to hatch some eggs you found, the best thing to do is leave them as they are. Failing that, they need to be placed in an incubator as soon as possible.
In the next section, we’ll learn how to set up a basic incubator and care for snake eggs in captivity.
Snake Reproductive Biology
In this section, we will discuss important aspects of snake reproduction, with a focus on egg-laying species.
Why Don’t All Snakes Lay Eggs?
Producing offspring can be a dangerous and strenuous task for any animal. It pays to have the right strategy for the situation.
Bearing live young can be highly advantageous in the right conditions.
This trait may have helped snakes to colonize colder climates. Live-bearing snakes are far more common in temperate areas. The live-bearing European adder (Vipera berus) can even be found in the Arctic circle!
Reptile eggs must be laid on land in order to survive. Live-bearing snakes such as sea snakes and water snakes can remain in wet habitats year-round. They can even give birth underwater!
Live birth also reduces the need to search for nesting sites and prevents egg predation.
Oviparous snakes benefit from shorter “pregnancies” than their live-bearing counterparts. This allows them to continue to feed and allocate resources to their own growth.Egg-laying species are also able to produce more offspring than live-bearers.
Evolutionary biologists believe that the first reptiles were all egg-layers. Live-bearing methods are thought to have evolved later in groups subject to specific evolutionary pressures.
Fun Fact: The ability to give live birth may have evolved independently in over 30 different snake lineages!
Which Snakes Lay Eggs?
All major snake families contain some oviparous species.
Most colubrids lay eggs, such as rat snakes, king snakes, and hognoses. Water snakes (genus: Nerodia) and garter snakes (genus: Thamnophis) are notable exceptions to this rule.
Elapids – members of the cobra family – are also predominantly oviparous snakes. Live-bearing exceptions include Australasian death adders (genus: Acanthophis) and all but one genus of sea snakes (subfamily: Hydrophiinae).
Most members of the boa family (Boidae) are viviparous. This includes the Boa constrictor, anacondas, and most sand boas.
Fun Fact: Some boa lineages may have “re-evolved” oviparity after being viviparous for millions of years!
All pythons (family: Pythonidae) are oviparous, unlike their closely-related boid cousins.
The viper family (Viperidae) contains oviparous and ovoviviparous species. Most of the oviparous species are found in tropical and subtropical climates. Constant temperatures and high humidity are factors that may favor egg-laying.
When do Snakes Lay Their Eggs?
Snakes are able to breed once or twice per year.
There is some degree of seasonality in snake reproduction. This effect is most apparent in temperate species.
Snake embryos – like all embryos – require a constant, warm temperature to properly develop. While they are stuck in an egg, snakes are not able to regulate this by basking.
Because of this, temperate species reproduce during the warmest months.
In North America, snake eggs are typically laid in the early Summer (June – July)
Most eggs will hatch during the late Summer and Fall (August – September).
In tropical climates, this season can be much longer, and some species reproduce year-round.
Where do Snakes Lay Their Eggs?
Most snakes use natural cavities to hide their eggs, usually in humid and sheltered spaces.
These often include compost or brush piles, leaf litter, and rotting wood. Some snakes use underground burrows made by other animals to lay their eggs.
Building your own nest box can be a fun way to provide habitat for snakes in your yard or garden!
Fun Fact: The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the only snake species known to actively build its own nest.
How Many Eggs Can a Snake Lay?
Clutch size is usually related to body size in oviparous snakes.
Small snakes, like colubrids, tend to lay around 10-30 eggs.
The largest snakes, like pythons, can lay over 100 eggs at a time (though usually fewer).
The smallest clutch sizes occur in minute species such as the thread snakes (genus: Leptotyphlops). Adults can be as little as 10 cm in length, and lay only one egg per clutch.
How Long do Snake Eggs Take to Hatch?
Incubation times, like clutch size, vary among species.
57 days is thought to be the average time taken for hatchling snakes to emerge.
Most species fall within the range of 40 to 70 days.
Fun Fact: Snakes can synchronize hatching times using their siblings’ heartbeats.
Do Snakes Protect Their Eggs?
Most snakes move on after laying their eggs and do not return.
Maternal egg guarding is known to be present in only around 3% of oviparous snakes.
This apparent caring behavior is most commonly observed in pythons. Females of certain species coil around their eggs until they hatch. This has been found to help with temperature regulation and to control water and gas exchange.
In oviparous species with parental behavior, mothers move on as soon as hatchlings emerge.
However recent evidence suggests that some live-bearing vipers may stay with their offspring until their first shed.
As snake mothers are rarely found alongside their eggs, snake eggs can be tricky to identify.
Caring for Snake Eggs
Though some equipment is required to get started, hatching snake eggs can be fairly straightforward.
The following section should serve as an intentionally basic introduction to snake egg care.
Be sure to thoroughly research the topic before attempting to breed reptiles.
Should I Breed Snakes?
As with any animal, snakes can be a big responsibility.
Breeding snakes – especially large clutches – requires commitment. It is also important to consider how you will care for the hatchling snakes once they emerge.
Breeding reptiles without proper knowledge can lead to neglect and even abuse of the animals.
Many reputable snake breeders sell healthy hatchlings at a reasonable cost. Still, hatching an egg can be a rewarding experience if done correctly.
Incubating Snake Eggs
A basic incubator setup can consist of a plastic container (to hold the eggs). This would then be placed inside of an insulated box, such as a cooler.
It is easier for beginners to purchase a ready-made incubator. These can be found in many reptile stores.
If your incubator includes a fan, disconnect it to prevent water loss.
Make sure that air holes are present and uncovered. These will provide oxygen for your snake embryos as they grow. Briefly open the incubator every few days to provide fresh air.
Many commercial incubators include a water bath to prevent temperature changes. This effect can be achieved using an aquarium heater.
It is important to keep the temperature between 27 and 31 degrees celsius. Some species have more specific requirements, so research is needed ahead of time.
At least two thermometers should be used to monitor temperature at all times. The temperature should be controlled by a thermostat if possible.
Humidity should be kept around 90%.
It is important to run an incubator for a couple of days before adding your snake eggs. This gives it time for desired conditions to be reached.
Your incubator should be kept away from additional sources of heat or cold air. Prevent other disturbances such as strong vibrations.
Place the eggs in the container, partially buried in a suitable substrate, such as soil, vermiculite, or sphagnum moss. Do not place the eggs more than halfway beneath the substrate, or they may suffocate.
Substrate should be lightly misted every few days to maintain humidity. Be careful not to saturate substrate with water.
Eggs should be kept in their original orientation, and never turned. Gently marking the top of each egg with a pencil can help.
Most snake eggs should hatch in 45-70 days if incubated properly.
Taking on any pet is a big commitment. Luckily, caring for a snake is relatively straightforward. Once you understand their needs for heating, lighting, and a healthy diet, it’s like second nature. For further information about snake care, check out our ball python and corn snake care sheets.
Resources For Snake Breeders
There are many books on the topic of snake breeding and egg-care.
The best approach is to search for titles relating to the species you intend to keep. There are too many such titles to list here. You may find some at your local reptile store.
Chris Mattison’s “Keeping and Breeding Snakes” includes information about egg incubation across a range of species.
Micha Petty’s “A Primer on Reptiles and Amphibians” is an excellent book for anyone looking to learn more about herpetology. This title recently featured in our list of top 5 “Must-Read” books about snakes.
Are Snake Eggs Edible?
Surprisingly, snake eggs are edible!
In some Asian cultures, snakes are regularly consumed, along with their eggs.
No snake is known to lay toxic eggs, but allergies and food-borne illnesses can occur as a result of consumption.