Adaptive maternal cannibalism in snakes (Epicrates cenchria maurus, Boidae)

Olivier Lourdais*, François Brischoux, Richard Shine, Xavier Bonnet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


In many animal species, mothers that produce stillborn offspring or undeveloped ova immediately ingest them. This cannibalism has been interpreted in two ways: (1) as a form of parental care (to prevent disease spreading to healthy littermates, and eliminate predator-attracting scent cues); or (2) to recycle otherwise wasted energy, thus facilitating maternal recovery. Our experimental study on captive Colombian rainbow boas (Epicrates cenchria maurus) provides the first quantitative support for this latter hypothesis. We show that by eating their non-viable offspring and undeveloped eggs, female boas can rapidly recycle a significant component of their otherwise wasted reproductive investment. Female boas that ingested non-viable progeny equivalent to half their litter mass exhibited rapid recovery of dorsal musculature and hence were able to constrict prey items more forcefully than were unfed females when tested 2 weeks after parturition. The consequent enhancement of constricting ability may influence maternal survival and foraging success. Thus, maternal cannibalism may be an effective tactic to avoid wasting reproductive resources, and to shorten the period required for recovery from pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)767-774
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Eggs
  • Filial cannibalism
  • Musculature
  • Stillborn


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