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:


The female of the species…

I apologise in advance, I got so into the reading behind this post that I didn’t write down where my quotes and stats came from!  Also, I’m switching a bit between female killers and female serial killers here but will try to make it clear.  That said, at least statistics wise, the numbers for one off kills and for serial killers do tend to correlate.

Whilst Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Female of The Species declares us to be more deadly than the male, we, as a culture, don’t expect female killers, let alone female serial killers.  It is telling that Christopher Berry-Dee’s book Talking With Serial Killers has the byline “The most evil men in the world tell their own stories” despite it containing a chapter dedicated solely to Aileen Wuornas and including one on Douglas Clark & Carol Bundy.  Allegedly, a member of the FBI said that there were no female serial killers as recently as 1998.

Knowing they do exist, lets get a feel for that statistics around female killers and female serial killers.  Between 2010 and 2012 in Australia, there were 49 homicides, 85% carried out by men and 15% by women (  Internationally, the Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database echoes these stats, with 11.4% of serial killers as women.  Christopher Berry-Dee noted 12 female serial killers in England’s past and present, some of whom acted alone and others who worked with a (usually male) accomplice.  Whilst I’m focusing more on women who kill alone, the former is interesting because its thought that many of them wouldn’t have committed murder if they hadn’t met the more dominant male partner in crime.  For some of these duos, Berry-Dee regards the female as more of a tool in the male killers toolbox, for example used to lure in victims.

Unlike most male killers, female killers don’t tend to have a criminal record, the same being true of female serial killers.  The average male serial killer starts killing aged 27.5 whereas female serial killers start at an average age of 31.  Another key difference between male and female killers is that victim wise, women are much more likely to know their victims, killing husbands, partners and ex partners.

“Women are typically viewed as nurturers but when they commit violent crimes this takes away that identity or public perception, so they may look more terrible and monstrous than men.”
– Deborah Denno

Women who kill are seen as outrageous and unnatural anyway, but those women who kill children are seen by society as somehow more heinous than women who kill adults, likely because killing a child goes against the stereotype of nurturing mother.  However, female killers are people you’d trust, they are mothers, sisters and daughters.

“Female serial killers act like chameleons who blend in with their intended victims and seem to be the last person anyone would suspect.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, The New Predator–Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers

In part, this trust allows female serial killers to kill, something that is easily seen when we look at different types of female serial killers.  Black widows are almost exclusively female, killing their husband, lover or relative for financial gain and almost 90% of known black widows used poison.  Another archetypal serial killer that is almost always female is the lethal caretaker, often being paid to kill a patient, or profiting directly in some other way. Lethal caretakers may also kill or hurt others in order to be admired for curing them or to get sympathy for the death of a loved one.  A similar crime with a different motive is the angel of death who kill for the feeling of power and control and who are normally women.  Thus, the gender role cast on women by society, allows potential female serial killers access to a pool of vulnerable victims, such as the ill, the elderly, and babies and young children.

The same gender that allows access to victims, may also allow female serial killers to get away with killing.  They are likely to operate for longer as they slip under the radar.  This is in part because compared to their male counterparts, they are less likely to have a criminal record, they tend to kill people emotionally and geographically closer to them and they tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering.  On average, a female serial killer can have a career spanning 8-11 years whereas the average for male serial killers is 2 years.  This discrepancy is almost certainly, in part, due to the idea that women don’t kill and certainly don’t kill multiple people.

“Very few people believe that a female could hold the vicious capacity to commit serial murder, despite confessions from the offenders themselves.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin

As well as probably reducing the rate of women as suspects in murders, this almost certainly reduces the chance of being convicted for the crime if and when it goes to court.

Women’s motives and methods also contribute to the female’s serial killers lengthy killing career.  Women tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering to murder.  Female serial killers don’t tend to stalk or torture their victims and there is an overall practicality that tends to come with the female killer.  Their motivations are more practical and so are their techniques.  Additionally, there is rarely a sexual aspect to the crime.  On the whole, female serial killers also show less mobility than males, tending to kill near their home or workplace.

General motives for murder include revenge, jealousy, thrill, love, gain, conviction or hate and concealing another crime.  Whilst these are all likely motives for men who kill, women mostly kill for gain (eg money, insurance payment, assets or personal advantage) and love (such as assisted suicide, getting someone away from a situation deemed worse than death or a mother who is going to kill herself and believes her children can’t cope without her).

In addition to the regular motives for murder, women also kill because of abuse.  In these cases, murder is often depicted as a final straw and a way out of a tough situation and as such, prison is cast as a way of refinding themselves, self worth and getting back on track.  However, you cannot assume that all women who kill have been abused and I wonder if some women claim abuse as a way of making their kill seem more justified in the eyes of the law.

As an aside, my friend Jen wrote an interesting essay on a case where a woman retaliated against domestic abuse and how society and the legal system dealt with it.

“Most reasonable people simply cannot imagine why a woman, being the mother figure, could harbour such evil desires, the overwhelming, sickening need, or indeed perverse inclination to destroy human life, especially in abhorrent cases as multiple child torturing kills.”
– Christopher Berry-Dee

If convicted, once in prison, men who kill may well find themselves inundated with letters from women and may even end up married.  Women on the other hand, find they have “forsaken their assigned gender role and have been ostracized by their loved ones and shunned by the general community”.  They are cast as wicked women and find themselves abandoned.  Where sympathy is elicited for male killers, female killers cannot be comprehended are often cast as vain, as manipulated (by a man) or abused, possibly because it is far easier to imagine these options than it is to imagine or accept the idea of a sadistic woman.

Resources I’ve used