Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:


Elephant: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Cards


Like the tiger, there is so much that could be said about the elephant but I will try to just touch on points rather than going into great detail – if something resonates with you, find out more.

A fun fact (possibly, I have no evidence) is that despite their great size and strength, elephants are afraid of bees.


You are probably familiar with the key features of these giant land mammals – their huge ears, their long trunk, the tusks which make them vulnerable to poachers, their comparatively tiny eyes which make their vision poor… There is so much to take in when you see an elephant.

I am reminded of the tale of the blind men and the elephant.  What you perceive is only part of a whole, the view may be completely different from where someone else stands, even if they are right beside you.  We are also reminded in this tale that sight is not a sense available to everyone.  The elephant, with it’s poor eyesight, relies much more on its other senses.  As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to be a very visual society and the elephant is asking us to play with our others and not just rely on what we see.

The trunk of an elephant is amazing.  Just amazing.  They are born with short trunks which grow rapidly and they have to master controlling it.  Which is not as easy as it sounds.  The human tongue is controlled by 8 muscles, the human body as a whole is controlled by less than 700 muscles.  The elephant’s trunk is controlled by 40,000.

Let’s say that again.  The elephant’s trunk is controlled by almost 60 times as many muscles as our whole body.  5,000 times as many muscles as our tongue.  No wonder baby elephants get a bit confused

That fact alone is pretty fantastic but the trunk just gets better and better…  Elephants use it in many ways:

  • to breathe
  • to smell – they have an excellent sense of smell
  • to make noise – such as trumpeting calls
  • to touch things
  • to drink
  • to pick up things – they can lift up to 350kg
  • to reach high places
  • to snorkel with
  • to spray water over themselves

How awesome is that?!  And this adaptability, flexibility and making the most of what you have is something we can all learn from.

They also have what’s called a pharyngeal pouch at the base of their tongue which can store up to a gallon of water for emergency use.  A good reminder to always be prepared!

Sort of related to senses, are the tusks.  Tusks are overgrown teeth (hence vaguely related to the sense of taste).  For African elephants, both males and females have tusks whereas for the Asian elephant, it is only the males.  The tusks can sometimes look a bit cumbersome and certainly are the main reason why elephants are in danger, with ivory selling for exceptionally high prices.  If you want to know more about this, watch the ivory game (on netflix at the moment).

So, why have tusks?  Well, they are used to dig for water and food, they are used to mark trees, they help the elephant to clear debris such as branches from the path and they are used in fighting.  There are apparently reports of elephants trying to hide their tusks when humans are around… a sad state which tells us lots about the poaching industry as well as the intelligence of this animal.

The tusks and the trunk do mean that elephants are excellently equipped with their own built in tool kit.

Matters of the heart and mind

Elephants are social animals for whom family is very important.  They are sensitive, compassionate and loyal and are regularly seen helping each other out.  They spend most of their lives in single sex groups, meeting up for mating.  The female herd is led by one of the oldest elephants and great respect is shown for her.  This elephant will have a mental map of migration routes which has been passed down from generation to generation.  Our society on the otherhand is one which is increasingly devaluing our elders, disparaging the wisdom of age and disconnecting from our ancestors.  This may be asking you to reflect on that.

Male elephants are a symbol of virility and firey passion, given this perhaps our elephant is a male?

It is said that the elephant is a symbol of chastity – they have a gestation period of over two years and once they have given birth, they don’t have sex again for 3 to 5 years.  During this time, they are devoted to motherhood and teaching their baby how to be an elephant.  Other members of the herd will join in with this and show mum how to help her baby if need be.

Elephants are said to feel emotions deeply and to grieve for lost family members.  There are also stories of them helping out people and animals of other species including standing guard over injured people, proving shade and protection.

In addition to a big heart, these intelligent and endearing creatures have unusually an large hippocampus, the part of the brain which deals with memory, so the elephant may indeed never forget.




In some parts of Africa is was believed that the dead would return as elephants, again tying us to the idea of our elders, our ancestors and respecting their knowledge and wisdom.

In terms of Asian beliefs, elephants are associated with lightning.  For example, Airavata, a great white elephant from Hindu mythology, could fly, call down thunderstorms and create rainbows, surely a sign of their power.  There is also Ganesha, a god who could remove obstacles for people which stand in their way of success.  Buddha is said to have been a white elephant before being reincarnated as a human, a sign of their gentle nature perhaps?

In the west, where such animals weren’t seen, they were viewed as an emblem for the weird, unusual and a bit useless, hence our phrase white elephant.