Best Animal Parents
In the non-human animal world, parenting can be a bit different. Protecting and raising their youth is still the priority, but the circumstances and environment surrounding the newest members of an animal family vary. We often consider our parents as role models or guides in our lives, and the animal kingdom is no different. Some animal parents are simply exceptional, and the way they raise their children is truly unique.
One of the most noble animal parents is the Polar Bear. Prior to giving birth, polar bear Moms make a large den and feed up until “hibernation” time, almost doubling their pre-pregnancy weight. They give birth during their hibernation, in which the baby cubs are born blind and juvenile. The mother bear proceeds to nurse the cubs for months before ever leaving the den, all the while expending energy through the food they’ve eaten prior to hibernating. When they finally leave their den, cubs are ready to learn to hunt sea life and l protect themselves by following their mother’s lead.
Orangutan moms are also hard working animal parents. Rooted in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia and Malaysia, orangutan mothers only give birth to new babies about once every nine years, so they form a very strong bond with their youth. For their first couple years, orangutan babies are carried on the backs of their mothers as they forage for fruits for up to six hours a day. Orangutans eat about 400 different varieties of fruit, and their main food source is a spiky, pungent smelling fruit called a Durian. When they eat these fruits, they spread seeds which help more to grow, a vital part of an orangutan’s contribution to their ecosystem. Orangutan mothers teach their children how to know when each of these fruits have ripened, as well as how to build nests for their own future offspring. Unfortunately one of the aspects of orangutan life that can’t be taught is where to go if their habitat is destroyed. This is the case in parts of Borneo where deforestation is an environmental concern – much of the environment for orangutan’s consist of oil palms – trees that are used to make palm oil, a fairly inexpensive ingredient found in many processed foods.
Caribbean Flamingo parents contribute early to their child’s success by feeding it a special protein, similar to milk, made in the flamingo’s gullet. This substance is packed with nutrients, proteins and fats, and is used to feed young flamingos, which gives them their striking pink color. However, during the raising of their youth the parent flamingos will tend to be lighter in color as making this protein washes out the bright pink.
Certain species of frogs are some of the most caring parents around. Marsupial, Darwin, and Mimic Poison Frogs are all types that go to great lengths to care for their children. Primarily, the father frogs are the most responsible. Both Marsupial and Darwin frogs must guard their eggs before and after hatching until the tadpoles turn into frogs. In the case of Marsupials, they hold their eggs in their pouch and in the case of Darwin frogs, the fathers guard their young by keeping them in a sac located in their mouth. Mimic Poison frogs are a bit different, they allow their eggs to hatch on leaves and then move them to pools of water near Bromeliads (flowering plants of the Bromeliaceae family) where the father guards these tadpoles nonstop, communicating with the mother when they need to be fed. All of these father frogs spend a majority of their time after hatching offspring in order to raise them and ensure a healthy infancy for these young frogs.
African Elephants are a mighty creature, and mighty fine parents, too. These elephants herd in packs of females led by a matriarch. Since pregnancy is a two year affair for elephants, they typically have new offspring once every three to four years. When a new calf is born, they are blind, and must depend on their mother for milk. In cases of danger, the entire herd will form a circle around the young elephant calves, keeping them safe from predators. Sometimes a calf goes missing, typically to other elephant herds. Under these circumstances, the elephant herd will form a pack and track down the missing calf, using their power of numbers to intimidate and other herds or predators.
Dolphins are one of the sea’s special parents. Typically giving birth to one dolphin at a time after about a year of gestation, a dolphin mom spends its next five years taking care of and bonding with their offspring. Dolphins typically nurse for six months to three years after birth, with their teeth developing after about 4 months. After they have their teeth, baby dolphins are able to help their mother hunt for fish and squid. Dolphins are very adaptive creatures, they learn through social behaviors, such as using natural sponges as protection for their snout when they are foraging, which is passed down generationally. They also teach their young a “whistle” that can be used to identify each other. When the calf is still young, there is a herd-mentality, or “pod mentality” in the case of dolphins, where other adults will watch the calf if the mother goes to forage for food on her own. Since the mother spends much of her time caring for her calf, she only has another baby every three to six years.
The giant Pacific Octopus is one of the most hard-working marine moms there are. They are known to only lay eggs once in their lives, so they can lay up to 74,000 eggs in a deep den or cave, taking care of them for over seven months without leaving. Since they are typically mothers only once in their lives, that means she will do anything and everything to make sure no harm comes to her eggs. They are constantly protecting their babies, but ultimately it is an act of self-sacrifice. The Pacific octopus doesn’t leave her babies at all during those several months, not even for food, and dedicates all her energy to her offspring. To survive, the mother will live off of fats and proteins within their own bodies and then eventually die from this…all for the success and safety of their children.
Gray Kangaroos are all about multitasking. After a joey is born, they will journey through the fur and to their mother’s pouch, where they will remain for further gestation and feeding. After nine months, they will emerge from their mother’s pouches and finally be old enough to leap around! Since the initial development is so short, female kangaroos get pregnant in quick succession, meaning they are nearly permanently pregnant. If a kangaroo is carrying two joeys at different development rates, they can adapt and produce two different kinds of milk at once to ensure both joeys get the nutrients they need at that stage.
The Emperor Penguin is another great example of sacrificing mothers, though it is a collaboration between mother and father. The mother will nearly starve herself while producing an egg, upon laying it, she will transfer the egg to the father. This is an act that takes the utmost care from them both because damaging an egg would mean the death of the chick-to-be. After the transfer, the father will incubate the egg while the mother goes off for months in the snow to gorge herself with fish. But, she isn’t doing this for herself. When she finally returns to her newly hatched chick, she will regurgitate all her food to feed the baby. The mother will balance the chick on her feet and cover it with her brood pouch, protecting them from the icy temperatures and blinding storms until they are finally old enough to venture out on their own.
There is no rest for Orca Whale mothers once their calves are born. After the eighteen month gestational period, which is actually one of the longest gestation periods of any mammal, the newborn will be completely dependent on their mothers for another 1-2 years. This newborn orca will not sleep at all for the first month of their lives, which means the mother won’t either. Sounds kind of familiar, right moms? Instead, they will continuously swim, which helps avoid predators and build important fat reserves and muscle. An Orca mother will invest so much energy to sustain her calf, and it is important for these mothers to provide protection, as 37-50% of calves don’t survive the first six months of life. Some orcas stay in their pods forever, which means the mother and baby stay together throughout their entire lives.
The Virginia Opossum, the only marsupial in North America, literally carries the weight of their family… on their backs. This mother can have anywhere from four to 25 babies in a single litter. But, female possums only have 13 nipples, so typically only the first 13 babies of a litter tend to survive. That’s still a lot of babies to be responsible for, and after staying in the marsupium for 100+ days, they literally cling to their mother’s back to survive. This mother wears a vest of babies, traveling everywhere with them. But once they fall, they’re on their own and can’t hitch anymore rides with mom.
These creatures represent some extraordinary parenting skills in the animal kingdom. Going off their innate abilities and what their children need, each animal is able to provide for their offspring in different ways and protect them from predators. Parenting in the animal world is so species-specific that it’s hard to rate a “best” or “worst” parent, but these are certainly ones leading the charge for most notable parents in the animal kingdom.
Sources: Animal Answers.UK, Animal Planet, BBC, LiveScience, National Geographic, Neatorama, NBC News, Orangutan.com, Orangutan Foundation of Australia, Sea World, S.E.A. Aquarium – Singapore, Smithsonian Magazine, TreeHugger, World Wildlife Fund, WRAL