Animal grooming of offspring is worth emulating


Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Parenting brings out our most tender, protective and altruistic instincts. But even the finest human parent cannot match the sacrifices that animals make to raise and nurture their young in a harsh and hostile world. Bringing up baby in the animal kingdom takes many forms from the sea turtles, which’ve barely hatched before they're engaged in a race for their lives to the sea to our fellow primates, who remain close to their folks right through adolescence.  No mammal mother is as physically attached to her infant than the kangaroo. For months she carries the young joey nestled in the safety of her pouch. He does not even have to come outside to feed.  When he does emerge, Mama's boy still stays with her,  sticking its head inside her pouch to suckle long after he is too big to be carried.

Community day care arrangements are fairly common in a number of species - flamingos, penguins, giraffes, dolphins, and even crocodiles, to name a few. Newborn dolphins travel in such tight formation with their mothers that they look like one animal to predators. Close relatives often relieve the mother from her intense childcare chores, and the young learn to interact by playing together in these watery nurseries. The kids are weaned at 18 months, but they frequently hang around home for up to six years before striking out on their own.

Care giving is as varied as is animal life on earth.  It begins with safeguarding the eggs. Certain birds bury their eggs in a mound of soil and vegetation, poking in their beaks to check the temperature. Others shed feathers onto their bellies to warm their eggs.  Some fish protect their eggs by carrying them about in their mouth. Certain snakes shiver to raise their body temperature a few degrees to incubate their eggs.

In many species , it is the male who plays a stellar role. For example in Emperor Penguins , after the female lays the egg, it is Papa penguin who lays it on top of his feet and stays there not moving , or feeding for two whole months in the bitter Antarctic cold. When the egg hatches, he feeds the chick a special liquid from his throat. Daddy dearest often loses 20 kg over this period and sometimes even his life.  Another selfless dad is the  sea catfish whose mouth becomes a nursery as he swims around with a jaw-full of eggs the size of marbles, which he picks up shortly after the female lays them. He lives off his body fat for the two months it takes the eggs to hatch and his young to grow. Sea horses are the absolute top of the Pops. In a charming role reversal, the female courts the male and then plants her eggs in his pouch. While she swims off, the male knocks his body against a plant or rock to settle the eggs. As these embryos grow, the male seahorse's belly swells. Come delivery time in about a month, the seahorse doubles over to squeeze his swollen abdomen and out pop progeny—from 10 to 300 depending upon the species. He continues to protect his young until they can fend for themselves. He then dutifully returns to the same partner to mate again. After mating, the female  giant water bug   glues her eggs on the male's back. He strokes the eggs to clean them, does deep knee bends to aerate them, sometimes sits on the water surface to dry them off and get rid of parasites, and moves around deftly to avoid predators. Within a few weeks, the eggs triple in size. Right before they hatch, the male stops eating to avoid consuming his offspring. Once his young hatch and scatter, the male kicks the egg pads off his back with relief!

Provisioning the kids can be hard work.  The Namaqua Sand Grouse , a bird that lives in the Kalahari desert, flies over 50 miles to find water. He soaks his feathers and makes the long, heavy  return trip so that his chicks may sip the water from his feathers!  Frogs lay eggs for their tadpoles to eat. Pigeons regurgitate a secretion from their throats for their chicks. Cockroaches  eat and regurgitate bird poop to supply their young with the high nitrogen vital for growing roaches.  Bird parents who fly off to find food risk their brood being attacked by hungry predators from squirrels and chipmunks to other birds. They also lay themselves open to being duped.  The cuckoo is a creature that dispenses with every convention of home making and parenthood, and resorts to cunning to raise her family.  She is a "brood parasite", a bird which never build her own nests but lays her  eggs in the nest of another species, leaving those parents to care for her young.  An expert in cruel deception, her strategy involves stealth, surprise and speed. The Cuckoo mother removes one egg of the host mother, lays her own and flies off with the host egg in her bill, the whole process taking barely ten seconds.  Cuckoos parasitize the nests of a large variety of bird species and carefully mimic the colour and pattern of their own eggs to match that of their hosts. Each female cuckoo specializes in one particular host species. How the cuckoo manages to lay eggs to imitate each host's eggs so accurately is one of nature's mysteries.
The tiny South  American monkey is equally a small wonder. The female produces a baby every two weeks with the male acting as midwife during birth, grooming and licking the newborn and taking over its complete care.. He  brings the baby to mum only to suckle and once it is weaned, stops bothering her at all, himself arranging for the necessary family groceries.   
Teaching is as important as feeding. Wolf and fox couples make attentive, indulgent parents. They stand guard, find food and the time to play with their pups. As these grow, they teach them to survive, burying food to show them how to sniff and forage, and playing ambush and chase games to train them to escape predators. They continue to live together much as human families do.  Leopards teach their young ones to climb trees. It keeps them away from lions and hyenas. Lions take care of their young like humans do. Similarly domestic  cats. Both puppies and kittens are born blind, their eyes do not open for 7-10 days. Kittens  receive plenty of  care, attention and survival training from their mother.  Apart from suckling her kittens, mama cat  licks their hindquarters to stimulate the release of urine and feces, and even cleans up after them.  As they grow, they hone their social and hunting skills by playing.  They will jump at and run from each another while simultaneously arching their backs and hissing.  The mother usually moves to an elevated spot, intervening only when  the game gets rough.  Tom cats play no role at all in raising their young.
Even more human than the big cats are monkeys who a study showed were able to teach their offspring to use tools. Female monkeys living in a 250-strong colony were observed by scientists teaching their young how to use strands of hair to clean between their teeth just like flossing!  Just like us, most families stick together for safety. A family of shrews out for a stroll is an example. With the mother at the head of the line, each baby shrew latches its teeth onto the tail of the sibling in  front, forming a snake-like caravan that scurries along the ground, breaks up for feeding and exploring, and reassembles at the slightest hint of danger.
Much like us , animals use punishment as a discliplinary tool. Mother dolphin checks errant offspring by pushing them down away from the surface to prevent breathing and then letting them go. She also emits a piecing noise that courses through their body like a gunshot. But animals almost exclusively use punishment only in dangerous situations. It seems they know instinctively that positive and negative reinforcement are more effective teaching methods than punishment.
There are no bad parents in the animal kingdom. Not even the deer and the hare who provide only minimal mothering, abandoning their young a day or two after birth and visiting just once a day at sunset to nurse them. Who do you think makes the best parent? My vote goes to the clever Cuckoo.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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