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Can Animals Be Racist?

Humans are racist.

Walls and Aryan babies aside, people are biologically programmed to behave differently with people who look or act differently than us. While this could be a self-defence technique in the most evolutionary sense, for the most part, racism stems from our misconceptions and preconceived notions.

When people talk of racism, they only refer to people.  I mean, nobody talks about a racist Guinea pig. But does this mean racism is an inherently human experience? Can animals be racist? Do they possess the intellect to process complex thoughts, like discrimination, hate and disgust?

Let’s find out.

Your dog may be a racist and you may not know it!

I don’t know about other animals, but there is definitive proof that dogs do discriminate between people. Whether you call this behaviour “racism” or not, depends on you.

Research by the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille (France) proved that dogs pick up discriminatory tendencies from their owners.

In the study, 72 pet parents were asked to bring their dogs to meet a complete stranger. Upon meeting the stranger, the groups of participants were asked to display specific behaviours.

  • A third of the dog owners were asked to walk three steps forward, towards the stranger.
  • Another group was asked to stand stock-still and display no physical cues during the meeting.
  • The final group was asked to take three steps away from the stranger.

The participants were told not to speak, make any noise or indicate any sign that alarmed their dogs in any way. Next, the dogs’ reaction to the meetings were observed and what the researchers saw astounded them!

 

Dog

 

In groups where owners approached the stranger, the dogs were relatively calm and didn’t display any signs of aggression or fear.

But, in the groups where the owners stood motionless or walked away from the stranger, many dogs were observed looking sharper, taking in their surroundings carefully and watching the stranger for any reaction. Why? Because the stranger initiated an abnormal physical and emotional response in their owners – their behaviour was suddenly very different.  

These dogs were recorded looking at their owners for a sign – an approval, a confirmation – to tell them what they needed to do. They were observed standing much closer to their owners, some in slightly defensive positions.

This proved what the scientists were trying to establish – dogs modify their behaviours and actions based on social cues given by their owners.

In scientific circles, this is called “social referencing” and this is something humans do a lot. For example, there’s a large snail in your garden and your baby is really intrigued by it. She wants to go near it. She looks at you to see if that’s okay. Your frown and your expression of disgust tell her that she probably shouldn’t be going anywhere near the thing; maybe there’s something wrong with it. This is social referencing. In adults, especially in terms of racism, children learn racist tendencies by observing their parents indulge in racist behaviours. If a parent says something mean and hurtful to a coloured person, his child may do the same too because he perceives the response to be a socially-accepted one.

The racism connect

Dogs’ ability to socially reference behaviours makes them indulge in behaviours that resemble racism.

For example, if a pet owner is bigoted against a particular race or colour, he may display certain physical signs like a frown, a look of disgust, a clenching of his jaws, physically moving away from the person of his discomfort etc. His dog may observe these behaviours and over a period of time, may associate the other individual, with danger. This can make the dog behave defensive and aggressive towards this person. If the dog isn’t too aggressive, to begin with, he too may display signs of fear, when he encounters an individual or an object that reminds him of the person his owner doesn’t like. These physical cues by the owner need not be conscious either. They can be done unconsciously or subconsciously and the dog will still pick them up and react off them. 

But despite this, scientists don’t consider dogs to be racists and we shouldn’t either. The reason is that dogs have not been recorded consciously holding prejudices that give rise to bigotry and hate. Dogs feed-off the behaviours exhibited by their humans and reflect similar conduct. This makes them (at least according to our current understanding) incapable of conscious racism. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

 

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Fun Facts About the Howler Monkey

  1. There are 15 species of howler monkey and they’re all found in Central and South America. 
  2. The howler monkey is the loudest primate on the Earth. Its call – a gruff, resounding roar – can be heard even 3 miles away. You can listen to it here.
  3. Not just their voice, but the howler monkey’s sense of smell is unbelievably acute  – they can smell food from 2 miles away. 
  4. Howler monkeys aren’t herbivores, they’re folivores – they are specialists in eating leaves.  
  5. Howler monkeys are one of the few primates (including humans), who possess trichromatic colour vision. This means their eyes are sensitive to the three primary colours – green, blue & red – and they can make out the differences between colours. This helps them pick and choose the best (read – the ripest & safest) leaves to eat.
  6. A particular species of howler monkey – the Mantled Howler – uses sticks as tools to drive away intruders and scare away predators. This is extremely unusual to the species as a whole; since this type of tool usage is considered the speciality of higher-order primates like chimps and humans. 
  7. Howler monkeys are the second laziest animals of the planet, right after sloths. They spend 80% of their time on treetops just resting. The other 20% of the time? Well, they pee on, poop on and scream at other monkeys, animals and birds.
  8. Howler monkeys are an Endangered species, because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Save them. 

 

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Black Howler Monkey & Baby (Males are completely black in colour, while females are yellowish-white) (Source)

 

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Mantled Howler Monkey – the only known howler monkey to use sticks as tools for defence. (Source)

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

P.S: Featured image: Howler monkey
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Humans Aren’t The Only Ones To Use A Midwife During Birth, Other Animals Do Too

Midwives have been a part of every culture for centuries. Many places of religious worship celebrate midwifery through paintings, sculptures and Bas reliefs.

Apart from easing the actual birthing process, midwives helped ensure the newborn was healthy, had no trouble breathing and was able to suckle well. In short, midwives ensured both the mother and baby survived. While midwives were the only option for women of yore, today they are one of the most preferred methods of birthing assistance and reproductive care.

When we talk of midwives, we envision a staid, calm person, urging the mother to push, encouraging her with kind words and helping her cope with her pain. When we think about the midwife, we envision a woman and sometimes, a man. Essentially, we envision a human being. 

Till as late as the late 1990s, it was believed that the practice of midwifery was developed by people. Surely animals did not, could not, possess a mind so sophisticated, that they could come up with a practice like midwifery. How would they know that another animal needed assistance during birth?

After all, wasn’t the one, defining difference between man and beast, the ability to empathize and help? 

 

Djungarian hamster
A Djungarian hamster (Source)

 

Animal midwifery: Where animals help other animals give birth

Nature is magnificent and one of the miracles of nature is an animal that acts as a midwife. 

Researchers were stunned to see when male Djungarian hamsters chipped-in to help their mates give birth. Provided they didn’t turn their offspring into a meal first, male Djungarian hamsters consciously pulled the pups out from the females’ birth canals. They proceeded to lick the pups clean and then shared the afterbirth with their mates. If their pups looked asphyxiated, the fathers would lick the amniotic fluid off their nose, clear their airways and help them breathe.  

Scientists believe that Djungarian hamster males experience a severe fluctuation in hormones just prior to birth and this results in an increase in cortisol and oestrogen in their bodies. This, they believe, could be one of the reasons for this unusual behaviour. The other theory has to do with the hamsters’ living conditions. Unlike other wild hamster species, Djungarian hamsters live in dry, desert environments and they spend a lot of time in their burrows with their mate, to escape from the harsh climate. This could make them more willing to help their mates during birth (compared to other hamster species where the males are nowhere near the birthing area). 

 

black Snub nosed monkey
A Black snub-nosed monkey (Source)

 

But it isn’t just Djungarian hamsters who make excellent midwives. Researchers have observed female black snub-nosed monkeys in South China also playing midwives to their bandmates during delivery. 

When a female black snub-nosed monkey is about to give birth and contractions start, she cries out using a very distinct sound. Upon hearing this sound, another female joins her and waits for the infant to crown. When he does, the midwife gently eases the baby out of the mother’s birth canal, tears open the amniotic sac and hands the infant back to the mother. Once she’s done, the midwife heads back to forage for food or take care of her own infant. The same behaviour was noticed in golden snub-nosed monkeys. 

Female bonobos too practice midwifery. This behaviour has been seen often in captivity and once in the wild. Just like the black snub-nosed monkey, the bonobo mother makes a soft, high-pitched squeal.

When she hears this, another female bonobo accompanies the pregnant mother and helps her give birth. Here too, the afterbirth was shared between the mother and the midwife.

 

Bonobo
A Bonobo (Source)

 

A primate speciality?

Djungarian hamsters aside, both the snub-nosed monkey and bonobo are primates. This makes us wonder whether their primate brains – significantly more developed than other animals’ – could be the reason for midwifery behaviour. 

But this may not be the case.

Chimpanzees, who are the closest to humans (and who possess far superior brains compared to bonobos and snub-nosed monkeys), prefer to give birth in isolation. So too other primates like gorillas and orangutans. 

But if you consider the research by primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas, only 5 out of the 39 live births (across 31 primate species) she recorded, were done in isolation. The rest were in the company of band/troopmates. 

What makes this behaviour particularly difficult to observe, is how these animals typically give birth at night. Additionally, with these animals so adept at hiding from predators (including humans), it becomes even harder to track birthing animals. 

Empathy, intelligence or instinct?

The practice of midwifery developed in humans as we became more aware of the birthing process. Our highly-evolved brains, capable of high empathy, added to this progress. 

What we don’t know today, is if animal midwifery stems from the same reason. It could also be the desire to partake of another female’s placenta (after all, it is rich in life-saving nutrients). Or, it could just be pure instinct. 

No matter how we reason it, the concept of animals playing midwives will throw up more questions, than they answer. Only time and extensive research will reveal the truth. 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured Image: Golden snub-nosed monkey 

 

 

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What’s In A Name: The Colourful (& Sometimes Hurtful) Profession of Naming New Species

Elephas maximus borneensis, Funambulus palmarum, Ajaja ajaja, Oryza rufipogon…you may have come across these or something similar in your biology textbook or an article about wildlife. They are scientific names of animals & plants – Borneo elephant, Indian palm squirrel, Spoonbills and Wild rice, in that order.

At first read, we may not really decipher which species the name refers to. But when we do, we are pleasantly surprised.

One of the most exciting activities in the scientific community, is taxonomy – the science of grouping a newly discovered species. A part of this job involves naming the species.

While enjoyable, the process of naming a new species is also a very complicated task; which involves a lot of research, word play and sarcasm. If you’ve ever wanted to know how plants & animals get their scientific names, you’re at the right place.

 

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Source: Pixabay

 

The rules of naming

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is the governing body which has complete control over all things taxonomy. It is the Code which spells out how an animal can be named and what rules must be followed while naming.

According to the Code, there are 3 cardinal rules that all taxonomists need to follow when naming an animal:

  • Don’t use a used name – The name must be completely unique.
  • Don’t be insulting – The name must not be rude to anyone.
  • Don’t name the species after yourself – The final name cannot include the name of the taxonomist.

Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately it isn’t.

There are many cases in the past when scientists named an animal to either gain recognition or to take a dig at a competitor.

There was Dr. May Berenbaum, the VP of Entomological Society of America, who named a species of urea-eating cockroach after herself – Xestoblatta berenbaumae. Of course, she did say that fame wasn’t her focus when she did this. Dr. Berenbaum was already a highly-reputed scientist in the community and she only wanted to showcase her passion for creepy crawlies by naming one after herself.

 

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Xestoblatta berenbaumae (Source)

 

Then there was famed 1700s botanist, the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. He is renowned today, not just for his contribution to taxonomy, but also for being unbelievably petty and mean towards people he didn’t like. At the height of his career, he used fellow botanist and friend Johann Georg Siegesbeck’s name as inspiration to name a foul-smelling genus of weed – Sigesbeckia orientalis – after Siegesbeck publicly criticised Linnaeus’ method of species classification. This, many believe, was meant to be a dig at Siegesbeck’s  jealousy at Linnaeus’ success.  

 

Anderson (Mrs), active 1858; Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Later Carl von Linne
Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy (Source)

 

St Paul Wort
Sigesbeckia orientalis aka St. Paul’s Wort (Source)

 

And who can forget Daniel Rolander, Linnaeus’ most-hated protégé?  After Rolander refused to share his field study results and samples from his trip to Suriname with Linnaeus, the latter promptly went ahead and got him banned from leading scientific and academic institutions of the time. To add salt to injury, Linnaeus also named a type of dung beetle – Aphanus rolandri – after Rolander. Ouch. 

Loosely translated to English, Aphanus rolandri means “inconspicuous Rolander”. Now that’s what I call a double whammy.

 

Beetle aphanus_rolandri
Aphanus rolandri (Source)

 

Here’s one more – Famed palaeontologist O.A. Peterson named a species of prehistoric pig as Dinohyus hollandi, after Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History W.J. Holland, for the latter’s annoying habit of hogging the limelight. Holland was known in scientific circles for taking credit for every research paper published by his students, irrespective of whether he contributed to it or not.

 

 

Okay back to the rules of taxonomy

Barring these and a few other instances of inspired, but hurtful name-calling, taxonomy has for the most period, been a civilised affair.

When naming an animal or a plant, taxonomists are told to consider the specialty of the species as inspiration. So, when scientists found a new genus of tiny sea snails, they named them Ittibittium; given how they were much smaller in size compared to another genus of sea snails – Bittium.

 

Snails Ittibitum
Genus Ittibittium (Source)

 

The second way to name a new species – find another creature that looks exactly like it and name the new species after that. Enter Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly which is renowned for possessing a giant, golden bottom. Who else in the animal kingdom had such a big, tanned, booty? Why, Beyoncé of course.

 

Fly Scaptia-beyonceae
Scaptia beyonceae & Beyoncé (Source)

 

TV shows and story book characters have inspired species names too. A newly discovered species of jellyfish was named Bazinga reiki after The Big Bang Theory’s protagonist Sheldon Cooper’s famous catchphrase “Bazinga”. The bacteria genus Midichloria was named after a fictional alien species called “midichlorians” described in the cult classic Star Wars.  Then there’s the fossil of a large turtle, discovered in 1992 – Ninjemys oweni, named after the hit show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 

 

So, to encapsulate

Scientific names must be unique, kind, not self-glorifying and clever. They must take inspiration from the species itself or another, just like it.

Can only scientists name a new species?

Although scientists who discover the species usually get the honour of naming them, some scientists allow members of the public to send their suggestions.

In 2000, Dr Nerida Wilson discovered a species of nudibranch in the Indian ocean. She didn’t have a name for the animal. So, she decided to let the people decide. She invited names from the public and the submissions were reviewed by a panel of expert taxonomists. Finally, the entry by Patrick from New South Wales was chosen and the nudibranch was named – Moridilla fifo.

 

Nudibranch fifo
Moridilla fifo (Source)

 

Oh yes, here’s something else…

The names don’t need to be in Latin.

Although Latin was the language of taxonomy in the 1700s, today, there’s no strict rule requiring taxonomists to name species in Latin or Greek. You can provide a name in any language of your choice and taxonomists will tweak the spelling to resemble Latin or Greek, without actually changing or translating the name itself.

Want to name a species yourself?

Go on and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Who knows, the next big discovery could be named by you.

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

PS: Featured image: Hierarchy in taxonomy Dinohyus hollandi – Fossil; Representative imageBazinga reikiMidichloriaNinjemys oweni 
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Why Are Marsupials Found Only In Australia?

Take a look at global animal distribution and you’ll notice how each country in the world has a specific type or species of animal, that isn’t found anywhere else.

One such group of animals is the Marsupials – animals that possess a pouch which they use to raise their young in. Some of the best examples of Marsupials are kangaroos, koalas, possums and wombats.

When we think about marsupials, we always associate them with the Land Down Under. Why is it that marsupials are found only in Australia?

Okay, let’s take a moment to set the record straight. Marsupials aren’t found only in Australia. They are also found in South America, Central America and certain parts of North America & Southern Canada. The best example of an American marsupial is the Opossum

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An opossum

Scientists believe that the first marsupials were actually born in South America and they crossed Antarctica to finally land on and inhabit Australia. This was 180 million years ago, when Australia, Antarctica and South America were a single super-continent called Gondwana. A common marsupial ancestor born in South America branched into two distinct species, with one residing in the Americas and the other migrating to Australia. Today, over 200 species of marsupials are found in Australia, 100 in South America and 13 in Central America – all descendants of the single American ancestor. 

Gondwana
A representative image of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana (image source)

So, the question we should be asking now is – “Why are a majority of the animals that are found in Australia, marsupial?” Or, a better question would be, “Why are so many marsupials still alive in Australia, when most of their American counterparts are extinct?” What makes Australia such a fertile ground for the birth (& survival) of so many marsupial species?. 

The answer can be two-pronged. One line of thinking states that the geography of the country-continent is the reason for a high percentage of marsupials in Australia.

Australia has been a landmass that has remained largely separate from other continents for millions of years. This meant, it was subject to weather and soil conditions that was completely different from what was found on other continents. In turn, this affected the type of plants that grew on the continent, which changed the diet of the Australian marsupials significantly from their American counterparts. The researchers who support this theory believe that the diet offered by Australia was more conducive to the development of the marsupial species as a whole, compared to the diet elsewhere.

The second theory is that, since Australia was largely and for a very long time secluded and protected from the invasion of foreign species, the marsupials of yore didn’t have much competition to face for shelter, food and water. Additionally, the predominantly marsupial population ensured the birth of more marsupials and over time, the continent was soon overrun by marsupials. 

On the other hand, the Americas blossomed with many distinct species of animals, leading to intense competition for resources and as a result, the extinction of many marsupial species. We need to remember here that marsupial babies are born underdeveloped due to the lack of a placenta. They need additional time compared to their placental or egg-born cousins to grow into strong & mature creatures. With so many threats lurking around and such few resources to be shared by thousands of animals, it was just a matter of time before the genetically-weaker marsupial species in the Americas went extinct. 

Placenta vs marsupial
A short list of placental mammals and marsupials commonly found in the wild (image source)

The future of Australia’s marsupials

So, what’s next for our pouched friends?

Species around the world are experiencing the brunt of habitat loss and governments are implementing conservation projects to keep them safe. In Australia, the kangaroo is given protected status – with criminals found injuring or killing them, getting a one-way ticket to prison. But not all marsupials have been afforded this luxury, making conservation a challenging endeavour.

Additionally, some species like the antechinus, are going extinct for another (never-anticipated) reason – their suicidal mating tendencies – and have stumped scientists. Experts are now scrambling to save these almost-extinct species, but it may already be too late. 

In terms of whether we’ll see any new marsupial species being discovered anytime soon; only time will tell. For now, the focus is on preserving the population that is present in the Land Down Under.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

P.S: Featured image: Pixabay
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Deceptive Sizing: 3 Newborn Animals Who Are Ridiculously Smaller Than Their Parents

Ah baby animals…these bundles of joy have been lighting up the wild for millennia. While everyone has been raving about their cuteness, not a lot of people have spoken about their size. Let’s face it, when it comes to size, some animals are impressive…impressively small. 

Here are 3 animals whose babies are way smaller than you thought they would be: 

 

Kangaroos

Kangaroo adults can reach heights of 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) and can weigh 90 kilograms (200lbs). But their newborn joeys are smaller than gummy bears, often smaller than 25 millimeters. 

 

 

Watch the incredible journey this little joey makes to reach the safety of its mother’s pouch:

 

 

Pandas

At their heaviest, adult pandas can weigh 160 kilograms (350 lbs). But their tiny cubs weigh only 1/900th of their mother’s weight! Now that’s really tiny. 

 

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A panda mom with her newborn cub

See that little pink floppy thing on the left side? yup, that little nugget is the cub.

Here’s a fun question; what do you call a group of pandas? An embarrassment! Ha ha, all jokes aside, a group of pandas is called “an embarrassment” because of the boisterous way in which panda cubs play when they’re together. It could embarrass any mum. 

Now indulge in some cub time by watching twin panda cubs embark on their first 100 days of life. 

 

 

Elephants

One of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants have longest gestation period in the wild. It takes their bodies 22 months to fully develop the calf (imagine being pregnant for almost two years!). But surprisingly, baby elephants when born are only 90 kilograms (200 lbs), while their heavy-weight mothers, aunts and sisters (and not to forget, their brothers and fathers) can reach ridiculously high weights of 3600 kilograms (4 tonnes)! 

 

 

Watch as this newborn calf, just hours old, meets his herd-mates, learns how slopes are not a baby’s friend and discovers the forest he is to grow up in. 

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About Sheep

  1. Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned in the world. She was born in 1996 and died in 2003 due to lung disease. Now 8 other species have been cloned after her. 
  2. Like to eat lamb or mutton? If yes to the former, you enjoy dining on young sheep. But if its the latter you like, adult sheep are your preferred meal. 
  3. A sheep’s natural diet constitutes invasive plants .i.e. plants or weeds that are not native to a geographical area and which wreak havoc on the health of native plants and animals (ex: moss, vines etc). That’s why farmers and conservationists use sheep in a process called “conservation farming“, where they consciously rear sheep to eat & clear any invasive plant species in a fragile ecosystem. 
  4. Sheep may appear dull and stupid, but they are quite intelligent and can recognize human voices and faces. They are often observed developing close bonds with specific people or animals on the farm. In fact, many sheep have “best friends” in their own flocks!
  5. Don’t you just love water-proof cosmetics? You need to thank sheep for that. Sheep produce a water-proof fatty oil called “lanolin” to keep their wool dry. It is this oil that is used as a base to produce water-proof make-up. 

 

Bonus

Apart from humans, sheep are the only animals who show a conscious lifelong preference for same-sex mates. A 1994 study showed that 8% of the males in sheep flocks prefer to partner with other males for life, even if there is no dearth of fertile females. In other animal species, a variety of factors from shortage of mates to lack of sexual pleasure can temporarily encourage homosexuality in animal groups.  

 

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Sheep live in tight-knit flocks. Lambs grow up playing with each other. 

 

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Orphan lambs are put with foster moms who have lambs of their own and are producing milk. This can be a very tricky affair for both farmers and lambs. Read all about it here

 

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Sheep wool never stops growing. Sheep need to be sheared at least once a year to prevent the onset of any dermatological diseases or pest-caused diseases. In 2004, Shrek, a merino sheep from New Zealand hid inside a cave for six years because he was scared of getting sheared. By the time he was coaxed out and caught by farmers, he had enough wool on him to produce 20 full-length men’s suits!

 

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Bighorn Sheep from North America have horns that weigh as high as 14 kilograms. 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

 

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5 Fun Facts About African Wild Dogs

  1. Each African wild dog has a unique spotting/marking on its fur. These markings serve the same purpose as human fingerprints and help researchers and gamekeepers keep track of individual pack members.
  2. Unlike in other animal groups where males leave and females stay behind; male wild dogs stay in their birth pack for life, while females leave and join other packs after reaching sexual maturity. This ensures there is no inbreeding.
  3. African wild dogs follow a community-based rearing of their young. Every adult member of the pack is responsible for the safety & upbringing of the pups and both males and females share babysitting duties.
  4. Wild dogs packs are extremely loving and caring, often taking care of the injured members of their packs for years. Healthy, adult dogs give feeding priority to pups and injured pack members, even before feeding themselves.
  5. Wild dogs are extremely intelligent and plan hunts well in advance. In fact, it’s this intelligence, coupled with team work and endurance that makes them successful in 80% of all attempted hunts. In comparison, lions are successful only 17%-19% of the time.

 

Bonus

Humans have tried to domesticate wild dogs like they did other canids, but have remained unsuccessful. Why? Wild dogs have an inherent suspicion towards any animal apart from their own pack-members and they have an intense dislike towards being touched. All domesticated dog species on the other hand, were very friendly and liked being petted, even when wild. 

 

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Wild dog pups, just weeks old

 

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Wild dog pack in the midst of a hunt 

 

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Every adult wild dog in the pack is responsible to teach pups the ways of the wild

 

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Wild dogs are very curious about their environment

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Indri

  1. Indris are a type of lemur found in Madagascar. They are very rare and an estimated 10,000 are left in the wild, making them critically endangered species.
  2. Indris produce songs to communicate with each other, which comprise of a series of roars and grunts. These songs are so hauntingly beautiful, they’re thought to be as good as the vocalizations humpback whales make as part of their mating ritual.
  3. Indris are a matriarchal society. A female leads the troop for foraging and determines the troop hierarchy.
  4. Indris mate for life and only seek out a new partner when their mates die.
  5. Female indris are fertile only for a single day in the year and they must mate then to ensure pregnancy.

Bonus

Unlike in other lemurs, the indris’ small tail doesn’t serve any purpose and doesn’t help them walk or jump. Instead, indris depend on their muscular legs to jump from tree branch to tree branch. They can jump 10 feet across in a single leap.

Video:

Sir David Attenborough meets an Indri

Indri
An indri 
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A baby indri
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A mother-baby pair

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Puma

  1. Pumas are known by 80 different names around the world. Some of the ones you may have heard of are – Cougar, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount & Shadow Cat.
  2. Puma cubs are born with spots on their fur, which they lose as they begin to age.
  3. Big cats roar, while small cats snarl. Unlike lions & tigers, puma can’t roar, but they can snarl. This makes them small cats, despite being the fourth heaviest cat species in the world.
  4. There are only 50,000 breeding Pumas in the wild, making them “Near Threatened” according to the IUCN Endangered Species list.
  5. Puma cubs start hunting small prey at 6 months of age. That’s the fastest of all the cats.

 

Bonus

Pumas are excellent jumpers. They can jump as high as 5.4 meters upwards onto a tree. That’s almost twice as high as the World Record high jump of 2.45 meters by Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor.

 

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A puma resting 

 

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A puma hunting a bear cub. The mother bear runs to save its cub. 

 

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A puma cub

 

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A puma running

 

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A mother-cub pair

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Wolverines

  1. Wolverines belong to the Mustelidae family, which includes badgers, otters, minks and beavers.
  2. Wolverines secrete a very foul-smelling liquid from their anus to throw-off predators and marauders. This liquid has given them the name “skunk bear”.
  3. Wolverines use a unique tactic to hunt. They climb onto tall trees and pounce onto their prey from the top. Sometimes, the force of the fall is enough to maim or kill the prey.
  4. In a fight between a bear and a wolverine, the bear will more likely be the first to back-off. Why? Wolverines are known for their nasty temper and nastier bite.
  5. The word “wolverine” means “glutton” in Latin. Wolverines will hunt/scavenge anything that comes in their path and pick the bones clean within hours. They’re also great at sneaking food out of traps set by researchers.

 

Bonus

A “wolverine” is actually the male of the species. The female is called an “angeline” and  wolverine cubs are called “kits”.

wolverine 3
An adult wolverine in captivity

 

Wolverine 4
A newborn kit

 

Video: Wolverine kits with their mother

 

So now that you know these amazing facts, which wolverine do you prefer? Comment below. 

wolverine 1

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Common Buzzards

  1. Common buzzards mean two different things in two different countries. In the UK, they’re raptors and in the US, they’re turkey vultures. In this article, we’re talking about the raptors.
  2. Common buzzard love decorating their nests with fresh greenery and they can be quite picky about the leaves they choose.
  3. Although they can easily hunt large prey like pigeons and rabbits, common buzzards prefer to eat earthworms and dead meat (carrion). That’s quite a small meal for birds their size.
  4. Common buzzards weren’t actually that ‘common’ in the 1950s. Food shortage and wide-spread hunting pushed them to near-extinction. But after the implementation of better agricultural practices and the banning of buzzard hunting, these birds have become the largest population of raptors in the UK.
  5. Buzzards live up to 25 years in the wild.

 

Bonus

Bird trainers and falconers hate using buzzards for sport as they are very lazy birds. Not only are they very slow at learning to fly at baits, but some buzzards refuse to budge from their seats even when commanded.

Buzzard 3
Common Buzzard Eggs

 

Buzzard 4
A Juvenile Common Buzzard

 

Buzzard 2
A White Common Buzzard

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Armadillos

  1. Armadillos swallow large quantities of air to inflate themselves into a balloon-like shape and float across water bodies.
  2. The three-banded armadillo is the only one of its species that can form into a complete ball. Its shell is so hard that even dogs can’t break it.
  3. When startled, armadillos jump 3-4 feet vertically into the air. This is the biggest cause of fatal accidents between cars and armadillos.
  4. The nine-banded armadillo becomes mother to 4 genetically-identical quadruplets each time it gives birth. Why? It produces a single egg that divides into 4 equal and completely identical parts.
  5. Armadillos are the only animals other than humans which can contract leprosy.

 

Bonus:

Armadillos are a delicacy in the United States. In fact, there’s a special dish called the Hoover Hog which locals in the southern United States make, using roadkill armadillo, fresh veggies and spices.  

However, I strongly discourage you to try this dish, as it is one of the causes of leprosy transmission between armadillos and humans.

Armadillo 2
A three-banded armadillo rolling into a complete ball
Armadillo ancient
Glyptodon; an extinct animal believed to be one of the ancestors of the modern-day armadillo

 

Armadillo 3
A baby armadillo being fed milk

 

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Three banded armadillo
Armadillo 6
Screaming hairy armadillo
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Andean hairy armadillo

 

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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5 Fun Facts About Chevrotain aka Mouse Deer

  1. Chevrotain are found only in Asia and Africa.
  2. Chevrotain are super small in size. The various sub-species of the mouse deer range in size between that of a Chihuahua and a Jack Russell Terrier.
  3. Although they resemble deer and have mousey faces, the chevrotain are not related to either of the animals. In fact, they belong to a separate, mostly-extinct species called Tragulidae, of which they are the only surviving members.
  4. They have very long and sharp fangs which they use during battle for territory and mates. Their bites can put even Dracula to shame.
  5. Female chevrotain are pregnant for most of their adult lives. They mate and get pregnant within a few hours of giving birth.

 

Bonus

Chevrotains walk down into the river bottom and remain submerged for up to 4 minutes at a time when they sense the presence of predators.  They may also create secondary burrows for themselves underwater where they stay until the danger passes. To see what this is like, watch the video below.

 

Mouse deer 1
A chevrotain’s fangs are very sharp and long. Males have longer and sharper fangs than females.
Mouse deer 4
Chevrotain mating
Mouse Deer 5
A mother chevrotain feeding a fawn. Mothers stand on three legs, lift a leg in the air and feed their fawns. 
Mouse Deer 6
Fawns are one of the smallest creatures in the wild
male Lesser Mouse-deer
A mouse deer in the Thai forest

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

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5 Fun Facts About Hippos

  1. Hippos are one of the most aggressive animals on the planet and they ‘yawn’ to show their annoyance or aggression towards another animal. Hippos kill an estimated 500 people each year in Africa.  
  2. The ‘red blood’ hippos sweat is actually a natural sunblock and moisturiser which hippos secrete to keep their skin hygienic and healthy.
  3. Hippos rise every 3-5 minutes from underwater to take a breath of air. They do this even when they are asleep, rising automatically and submerging again despite being semi/unconscious.
  4. Hippos are extremely fast and can run at speeds as high as 30 kms/hour. This is faster than the average human!
  5. Hippo calves suckle from their mothers underwater by closing their nostrils and ears.

 

Bonus

Hippos are actually related to whales and porpoises and not other land-based organisms!

 

 

Hippo 2
Hippo mother and calf pairs stay together for 8 years, until the baby enters adulthood.

 

Hippo 3
Hippo mums gently nudge their babies to the surface for the first few days after birth, to help them swim to the top.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Puppies

  1. What do French bulldogs, Scottish terriers, Clumber spaniels, German wirehaired pointers, Mastiffs and Pekingese have in common? 80% of their species are born via C-section!
  2. Puppies are born blind and deaf at birth and only get their eyesight and hearing around the 7 week mark. They get their sense of smell at 3 weeks.
  3. Puppy dog face is a real phenomenon. Research shows puppies deliberately make puppy eyes and cutesy expressions when they’re being watched by owners. This is a tactic to get attention, hugs and treats.
  4. There are instances of identical twin pups, although they’re very rare. In 2016, an Irish wolfhound in South Africa delivered twin pups who shared the same placenta.
  5. Puppies learn important lessons from other dogs and humans before 7 weeks of age. They must be introduced to humans and other animals by this age or they’ll never get over their fear of other creatures and become anti-social.

Bonus

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is training a Weimaraner pup named Riley to find and hunt pests that may damage irreplaceable artwork.

Here’s a cute video on puppy behaviour:

 

Pup 1

 

Pup 2

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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5 Fun Facts About Gorillas

  1. They are 98% human! 98% of the Gorilla’s genes are the same as the genes found in humans.
  2. They live only in Africa and no where else in the world.
  3. They make up to 25 different sounds, which is the highest level of vocalization by any great ape after humans. One gorilla named Koko even knew sign language and could make 1000 different signs!
  4. Want to identify a gorilla? Take its nose print. They’re unique (just like human fingerprints).
  5. Homosexuality exists in gorilla families and often females pair together and engage in sexual activity.

Bonus:

When we refer to  “Silverbacks”, we mean “male gorillas who’s over the age of 12” and who are often troop leaders. “Blackbacks” are “males under the age of 11”.

Gorilla 3

 

 

Gorilla 2

 

Video: 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

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The Fragile Mental Health of Baby Orangutans

P.S: This article may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

 

If you thought baby humans were tiny and vulnerable, think again. Baby orangs take first place as one of the most fragile and breakable newborns on the planet.

A baby orangutan needs round-the-clock care up until at least 1 year of age. Just like human babies, they are absolutely helpless and powerless and need their mothers (or carers in captivity) to feed them, bathe them and give them lots of hugs. In the wild, babies stay with their mother for 8-9 years, learning how to be an orang.

But these days, due to increasing commercial activity in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are being ripped apart from their homes; many apart from their families. Deforestation, coupled with human-orang conflicts which at times leads to mum’s death, can be quite traumatic for baby orangutans.

Often, workers and resident villagers keep orphaned baby orangs illegally as pets. They even sell them on the black market to make a quick buck. This can be especially devastating for baby orangs. Fed the wrong food and kept in unhygienic and harmful conditions, these babies find themselves spiralling down towards abysmal health.

It has been found that baby orangs that experience trauma at a young age often develop PTSD and may go into depression or have anxiety attacks as adults. In extreme cases, this manifests itself as self-harm. It has been noticed how traumatized orangs bite or scratch themselves, pull out their fur and hurl themselves against the wall when unable to overcome the frustration and anxiety they have building within them.

This is where orangutan care centres are especially important. These centres help vets, animal experts and volunteers care for baby orangs and rehabilitate them back into the wild. Take a look at this video below of baby Joss, who was rescued from a house that kept her as a pet where she was ill-treated the entire time.

Many orangutans may even find it very difficult to forge meaningful relationships with other orangs and their human caregivers.

A case in point is Pony, a 17 year  old female orangutan who was rescued from a brothel, where she was sold as a sex slave when she was a baby. Pony was trained to perform unnatural acts with humans and this resulted in her developing serious PTSD and an intense aversion to humans; something which is slowing down her treatment.

Unwilling to interact with humans, Pony is isolating herself from other orangs and her caregivers. Not taught how to forage when young and having been alienated from her natural psychological development, she has made no progress in her healing and the prospect of her release into the wild looks bleaker by the day. Although rescued at age 7, Pony was too old to provide the care her younger cousins (like Joss in the video) were given. Now caregivers use a combination of medication and routine activities to keep her calm and help her regain her trust in humans. To know more about her, follow this link*.

Awareness about these endangered creatures and how they are being abused can help us find ways to save them and protect them. We may not be able to do much for Pony, but we may certainly be able to save others from this terrible fate if we try. Share this post and spread the word about the harrowing journey these little ones face.

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured image: Orangutan babies

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Pig Anorexia: A Little-known Disease That’s Decimating Porcine Populations Globally

Anorexia nervosa is a complicated disorder and genes aren’t everything. The genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger.”

-Dr. Janet Treasure

 

When Dr. Janet Treasure, senior lecturer at the London Institute of Psychiatry conducted her research into the origins of Anorexia nervosa in humans, she found herself following a path not many knew about; but which could explain how Anorexia functions in human beings.

This path less travelled by, was the study of a disease that only few knew existed and which hardly any understood – Pig Anorexia.

 

Piglet suckling
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The day the pigs came calling

It was in 1962 at a farm in Ontario, Canada that the resident pig keeper noticed something amiss with the new litter of piglets. The tiny creatures had been recently weaned from their mother and were being fed by hand by the farm boys.

While things seemed fine at first, the pig keeper noticed the piglets had stopped eating soon after, often starving themselves for days until they were just skin and bones. With this starvation came the vomitting, the weakness and the weight loss.

The hunger, combined with the deteriorating condition of the body, soon grew too much for the tiny piglets to cope with and the entire farrow lost its life.

This was the very first case of ‘pig anorexia’ as it soon came to be called and it is a disease that has affected pigs the world over.

 

Virus
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The HEV

The Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV) is a RNA virus that affects porcine, aka pigs. As an RNA virus, it affects the pigs’ RNA, infecting the animal at the cellular level.

In every living creature, the DNA is the genetic blueprint of the body and it dictates the physiological and psychological make-up of the creature. The RNA is an acid present in the cells, which carries messages from the DNA and stimulates the production of proteins. These proteins are used by the cells to develop and control the functioning of the various organs inside the animal’s body.

Multiple RNA strands work within the cells of an animal’s body throughout its life. Ultimately, the RNA are responsible for the health of the proteins, the cells and the animal itself.

Now imagine if the HEV were to infect the RNA of the piglets. Each and every time an infected RNA would stimulate the production of proteins in the body, the proteins and by extension the cells, would be infected too.

Slowly over time, the HEV starts infecting the piglets from the cellular level by making their cells and organs diseased.

How does HEV spread?

HEV is just like any other virus and it spreads from contact with body liquids. These liquid spread between snout-to-snout contact and can also spread to pigs through indirect contact with boots, jackets, farm equipment etc. if pig saliva or mucus is splattered on them.

It’s been observed that most porcine populations are exposed to these viruses everyday. But only 1% – 4% of the population ever experience an active attack. Piglets are the most vulnerable to the virus, given their lack of immunity and strength.

Infected piglets will often have microscopic lesions inside their snout, on their tonsils and on the walls of their stomach. When the virus spreads, it moves to the lungs, small intestine and finally the brain through the sensory nerves. It is when the virus reaches the brain that piglets exhibit full-fledged anorexia-like symptoms.

The HEV has been observed re-writing the signals sent to the brain, changing the behaviour of the piglets. The affected piglets display low hunger levels at first and soon start skipping meals. During later stages of the disease, they may vomit extensively and may start dehydrating as a result. The muscles start to wear-out and soon, the piglet is just skin and bones. Death is an inevitable result of the disease.

The HEV-induced infection is a porcine-only infection and does not spread to humans.

 

Piglet 2
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Why is it called pig anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in humans, where the sufferer stops eating or refuses to eat and starts exhibiting a variety of symptoms including:

  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Listlessness
  • Depression
  • Constant vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Extreme weakness and lethargy
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Low tolerance to heat or cold

Pigs infected by the HEV  display symptoms  so close to Anorexia nervosa, that the disease has been named Pig Anorexia.

It can get extremely challenging to diagnose the presence of HEV in pigs. For one, symptoms resemble other diseases like Encephalitis, Vomiting & Wasting Disease or the Classical Swine Fever (or Hog Cholera). The only way now to identify if a porcine herd is a victim of the HEV, is to understand their origins and their environment.

Of birth and breeding

Pig pens are extremely fertile incubation areas for the Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus (HEV).  Once the virus takes root, it cannot be eliminated. The reason for this is the lack of a cure. To this day, there is no clinical cure available to help affected piglets.

But, there is something pig breeders can do to reduce herd vulnerability.

Piglets get high immunity from the colostral antibodies found in the mother’s milk. Putting piglets onto the teat at the earliest can reduce chances of an infection by half. Second, keeping the pen clean and free of fecal matter can reduce chances of infection further.

But this still won’t be enough. It’s been observed that susceptibility to the HEV is also affected by genetics. Pigs birthed naturally, without human intervention have the highest chance of survival as they have the most natural genetic structure which is designed to combat fatal illnesses.

However, with humans preferring leaner bacon cuts over thicker ones, pig farmers are deliberately isolating and promoting those genes which give rise to thinner piglets. This type of genetic manipulation, makes the piglets weaker and more susceptible to infections, including the HEV.

Dr. Janet Treasure said, anorexia is as much about genes as it is about the environment. When combined with the weak genes, the poor rearing environment and pathetic post-birth care practices can double the chances of piglets developing anorexia-like symptoms post-weaning.

Fallen pig
(Representative image only. Source)

 

Pig anorexia – shattering the body and the mind

Physically, the impact of HEV-induced pig anorexia is nightmarish. Thousands of pigs die each year because of the lack of veterinary care. Exposure to infected piglets often puts other healthy animals too at risk and increases the headcount.

However, it isn’t the physiological impact alone that needs to be considered. Pigs are extremely emotional and cognitive creatures. They are inquisitive, temperamental and borderline-compassionate.

A 2013 researchby Reimert, Bolhuis, Kemp, & Rodenburg showed how untrained pigs when introduced into a new pen of trained pigs, adopted the behaviours and mannerisms of their trained counterparts, after sustained exposure to them. These behaviours and mannerisms included everything from the way the tails were held to the vocalizations made to the choice of food the pigs were making. This could be an attempt at social acceptance by the pigs or a mimicry of a positive stimulus-response behaviour.

Now let’s apply the same logic here. Imagine if new pigs are introduced to an infected herd which displays signs of starvation, depression and social isolation. The new pigs too are more likely to mimic this refusal of food and they may socially isolate themselves, following the example of the herd.

This psychological impact that the HEV has on healthy pigs, can lead to true pig anorexia, with pigs refusing to eat out of fear, anxiety or depression.

 

Pig person
(Representative image only. Source)

 

The human connect

The idea that pig anorexia could bring about a breakthrough in the study of anorexia in humans was unthought of. But during her study, Dr. Treasure realized how similar pigs were to humans in terms of psychology and social behaviour.

Her study into pig anorexia helped her understand a key component about Anorexia nervosa – while genes do play a vital role in indicating susceptibility to the disorder, it is the environmental factors that finally trigger the condition. Essentially, people may be pre-disposed to anorexia through genetics, but this pre-disposition is unlikely to have a major negative impact so long as the person’s upbringing is filled with love and support.

Just like fecal matter in pig pens, constant negative feedback from family can make people more likely to suffer from anorexia. Remove this environmental contamination and you reduce the subject’s vulnerability to the disorder. This insight is now helping medical professionals find lasting  treatments for anorexia in humans.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Note:

∗ 2013 Research – Please check Pg.115 

P.S: Featured image

The World of Animal Supermoms

Moms…what would we do without them? Across the animal kingdom, it’s the materfamilias who rears the young. This International Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the spectacular force of nature that is – Mom.

 

There are all kinds of moms in the world and each of them has a unique parenting style. This Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at some of these powerful women and how they impact their young’s life.

In this article, we’ll look at 3 categories of animal moms and their relationship with their young. Be sure to watch the videos of these moms in action. Here we go:

Mom #1: The Single Superstars

The moms under this list are the lone warriors of the animal kingdom. They single-handedly raise their young and train them to survive in this cruel, wild world:

  • Orangutans

Of all the mothers in the animal kingdom, Orangutan moms are the most patient, gentle and forbearing. Although they reside in groups where there are both males and females, the father seldom takes any interest in rearing his young.

The Orangutan mother is devoted to her baby’s upbringing right from birth. She builds the baby her nest in a tree (every night a new nest!), picks berries for her to eat, teaches her how to use tools, shows her ways to stay safe in the forest and essentially, makes her a responsible and contributing member of the group.

Orangutan mothers do have one fault though. They love their kids a little too much and spoil them rotten. So much so, that many orangutan babies stay with mom until they’re 10-12 years old.

  • Ruby-throated hummingbird

The female ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most diligent birds in the animal kingdom. She really works very hard when raising her young. A single mother by all definitions, her mate’s role ends at egg fertilization.

Once she’s ready to lay her eggs, the ruby-throated hummingbird sets about building the nest. It’s an arduous process, which can tire even bigger animals. Once her nest is built, she lays the eggs and gestation takes up to 2 weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the mother visits flower-upon-flower collecting nectar for her young. She makes repeat visits for days until the young are ready to take flight and fend for themselves.

For a mom this size, that’s a lot of work.

Mom #2: The Gritty Girl Gangs

Strength comes in numbers and these moms understand the immense benefits of community child rearing:

  • Elephants

When it comes to elephants, there is no such thing as a ‘single parent’. One cow-elephant having a baby equates to the entire herd having a baby. For elephants, the birth of a calf is a monumental occasion. The entire herd comes together to raise the baby after the mother’s 22 month gestation period. In fact, elephant calves spend more time with their aunts and siblings than their mothers. When a calf is threatened, each member of the group stops what she is doing and answers the baby’s call.

Elephant herds have designated babysitters (adolescent females a year or two from maturity, practicing their mothering skills), who take an active role in educating the calf and teaching it how to use its trunk, how to select the right leaves and how to be an asset to the herd.

  • Orcas

Have you ever seen an orca pod teaching the calf to hunt? No? Well, you should. Orcas are one of the most fearsome predators of the oceans and they are one species that believe in giving their young a hands-on learning experience.

When a calf is born, the entire pod (which is matrilineal) works together in caring for, feeding, cleaning and protecting the young from danger. When the calf is old enough to hunt, the mother (with her sisters, nieces and mother), takes the calf on hunting tours and teaches it to hunt seals and penguins.

This girl gang sticks up for its babies and there’s nothing they won’t do to keep the calves safe from harm.

Mom #3: The Paragons of Sacrifice

If the rest of the animal kingdom believes in staying alive for their young, there are those moms who willingly embrace death to give their wards a better chance at survival:

  • Octopus

When it comes to maternal devotion, no animal can beat the octopus. After laying her brood of eggs (that number in the tens of thousands), the mother octopus painstakingly works on keeping the eggs dirt-free. She gently blows freshwater on the eggs to keep them hydrated and nourished and spends up to 14 months protecting her eggs from predators.

During this time, the octopus does not leave her nest even for a second to feed and in the process wastes away into nothing. By the time the eggs are ready to hatch, the octopus mom will literally be a shell of what she once was.

In 2014, scientists found an octopus mom caring for her brood for 4.5 years! They aren’t sure yet how she survived that long without feeding.

  • Spiders

A parent eating their young is common in the wild. But Matriphagy, where a young devours its own mother is rarer still. But spider babies seem to find nothing unnatural about this arrangement.

The spider mother gives the new hatchlings her unfertilized eggs to eat during the first few days post-birth. Once this repository of eggs gets over, the mother offers herself up to her babies for their next meal. The baby spiders pierce the abdomen of the mother and greedily suck out her bodily fluids; killing her in the process.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH