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:


Sharing space: Living alongside wild animals

This is yet another huge area for discussion so I’m going to look specifically at how humans and elephants live together as well as lions and humans.

It is easy for those of us in Britain to look to Africa and feel shocked and appalled that lions and elephants are being killed.  And in some cases I think this reaction is justified but as I mentioned when I was talking about canned hunting, some of this is down to the inevitable conflict between local human populations and animal populations.


Elephants are huge and powerful animals which often travel in herds across historic migration paths.  As human populations continue to expand and spread out, they are encroaching into elephant habitat and building across these traditional routes.  In addition to this, elephant habitat is shrinking as we destroy it.  This means that elephants and humans are living closer together than ever before and this brings inevitable clashes.

Elephants and humans are competing for land and for food, elephants are trampling through and destroying crops, they are eating the crops because they’re hungry and the food is there.  But the same plants are needed to feed the humans and are farmers’ livelihoods.  As such, when elephants threaten to destroy their crop, they try to drive them away because their entire crop can be destroyed overnight which has potential to lead to financial ruin.  But scaring the elephants means they get scared and attack.  Or they kill or injure humans as the elephant tries to run away.  Elephants do not eat humans so it is generally when they are afraid that they will hurt us.

Elephants need a lot of space as they are huge and attempts to relocate them having been very successful.  A herd of elephants needs hundreds of square kilometres of land to sustain them.  And with an ever growing and sprawling population this is hard to find and the elephants are not very good at staying where we want them to.

In India, the people living near elephants have an incredibly complex relationship with them.  They love them, they worship them, and in the past it was seen as a good omen to have an elephant on your farm – a sign of a divine blessing and a good harvest.  But today, as elephants become more commonplace in fields, fear and hatred has crept into the relationship.  And this is understandable.  Elephants raid fields, destroy homes, hurt and kill people and inadvertently cause chaos just by being there.  People are frustrated and angry and they have had to change their way of life because of the elephant.  There are children who don’t go to school every day because if an elephant is nearby it is not safe to walk there.  People no longer feel safe going out after dark either.

  • In India 100-300 people (depending on the report you read) are killed by elephants each year
  • In Kenya, over the last seven years, 200 people have been killed by elephants
  • In Sri Lanka, about 50 people a year are killed by elephants

It is not surprising then that some of these people call for elephant culls.  But there are ways of reducing elephant human conflict which do not harm the elephant, most of which involve trying to steer the elephant away from villages.  These include using natural deterrents such as chilli and tobacco which the elephants doesn’t like.  Planning farms in such a way that they are easier to defend.  Growing food the elephants don’t like but which there is market for – I think sunflowers are one such crop.  Better fencing.  Early warning systems.  And bees.  I find this last one an interesting idea – it is said that elephants do not like bees so having a fence system which has bee hives at regular intervals keeps them away.  It also means that honey can be harvested and sold along with other by products of beekeeping.


Lions kill livestock and people, and people then retaliate and kill the lions.  And lion numbers decrease.

As with elephants, some of this conflict occurs because lions and humans are geographically closer due to habitat loss and fragmentation and desertification.  The lines between lion and human land are blurring and overlapping.  And there is less food for lions so when they see an easy meal, they take it, regardless of whether the cattle might have human owners or not.  And then humans try to fight back.  They might try to shoot the lion or poison it.  But the carcasses laced with poison may be eaten by other carnivores, or it might wipe out an entire pride of lions.

It is important to note, that like we saw with foxes, the damage done by lions is often overestimated.  In fact more livestock is lost to disease and drought than to lions, and lions are not the only predator responsible for killing livestock – leopards and hyenas are also responsible but shoulder little of the blame and retaliation.  I wonder if this is because lions as seen as top predator, as king of the beasts and hence remind us that we are not top of the food chain?

In terms of reducing lion human conflict, a number of methods have been tried primarily aimed at keeping the lions at bay.  These include noise, use of lights at night, better fencing, setting out farms so they are easier to protect and having adults protect the livestock not children as it seems that lions can tell that children mean they stand a better chance at a kill.  Having dogs to act as early detection and warning systems is another way of reducing livestock loss.  As is education, in particular, if we can learn where and when the lions travel, we can try not to get in their way.  Similarly, there are other ways we can reduce human vulnerability, for example by what colour clothing we wear, which would hopefully reduce human deaths and hence retaliation kills.  Wildlife tourism and compensation schemes are other suggested ways of moving away from seeing lions as pests.

As I said at the start, it is easy for those of us who live in the UK to cast judgement over elephant and lion killing, and other species who are also in conflict with humans but we don’t have to live with the consequences.  In these cases, the hunting debate is intensely complicated and it does not feel like it’s my place, that I’m not informed enough, to make any kind of judgement about the ethics.  It seems that prevention and deterrent work is a good way forward but if a lion was getting close to my child I don’t know how I’d react.

Aside: if you want to find out more about these two magnificent creatures, including symbolism and their roles in myths and religion, have a look at my animal spirit posts: