Admit it: when you see a reptile mother, the first adjectives to pop into your mind probably don’t have much to do with nurturing. And perhaps that isn’t entirely unwarranted: countless species of animals’ duty to their progeny ends roughly around the same time as their eggs are fertilized. This includes many species of egg-laying reptiles, which leave their young long before they hatch (the scads of unsupervised baby turtles we see crossing the road each year will attest to this). But “many” doesn’t mean “all,” and in the case of a few reptiles, the care they provide to their young is truly above and beyond!
An example of this was recently captured in videos of a 3-legged alligator mom building a nest and limping back and forth to her hatchlings as she gently carries them into the water. While the video is extraordinary and heartwarming in its way, it turns out this behavior is really quite ordinary for alligators. Alligator moms guard their eggs, and even respond to unhatched young calling to them from inside their shells. Sometimes, they will even aid in the birthing… er, hatching process by carefully biting into a hatchling’s shell! From there, they stick around for up to two years, helping and protecting their offspring until they are large enough to fend for themselves. Believe it or not, the hatchlings need this help: alligators – at least the young ones – have several natural predators.
Observing this behavior is a fascinating reminder that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It is also tantalizing in the questions it raises: crocodilians (the order alligators belong to) are actually more closely related to birds and dinosaurs than to other living reptiles, Hmmm… after seeing this, it’s hard not to wonder if nasty ol’ T-rex was actually a doting parent.