It’s not easy being a parent.
We want to protect and prepare our offspring, with the emphasis on protect. In fact, these days many human parents seem willing to protect—and house—their children well into the kids’ adulthood.
Aberrant as the practice seems to those of us of earlier generations, keeping youngsters, at least the females, closely connected to their family of origin is common practice in the animal world as well, particularly among longer-lived pack and herd animals.
Elephants, killer whales, wolves, wild horses, apes and African lions maintain matrilineal connections whenever possible, even as wandering, disconnected males, which are rarely invited to hang with the folks, seek to horn in on the action of a new group.
Other than mammals, long term family bonding is relatively uncommon in the animal world. A female Dungeness crab will say goodbye to her 2 million babies as soon as they are hatched, releasing them to float freely in the ocean, providing meals to virtually every other life form that swims.
Sea turtles don’t even stick around to watch their babies hatch. The females drop their eggs on the beach, cover them with some sand and take off for the nearest square dance, leaving their babies to navigate through hundreds of predators on their way to the surf.
Turtles are much like snakes, the vast majority of which lay eggs and then depart, but lest you make the erroneous assumption that such behavior is universal amongst reptiles, consider the alligator. Female gators lay eggs in a hidden nest, which they guard ferociously, until the young hatch. Then, they will move the babies, some of which ride in those very toothy mouths, to a safe place in the water, where mom continues to care for them for several years.
The vast majority of fish species deposit their eggs and call it a day, opining, I suppose, that their work in nest preparation fulfills their parental responsibility. Some, however, take a broader view, and at least one, the discus fish from South America, actually feeds its young from mucus present on the bodies of both parents.
Somewhat more common is the behavior of North America’s largemouth bass. Female bass deposit up to 4,000 eggs per pound of the mother’s body weight, which are then fertilized by her chosen mate. Afterwards, females depart for a deep-water spa session, leaving the male to guard the nest, which he will do without eating until the young hatch and finally depart, two weeks or more later. During that time he’s ceaselessly fought off hundreds of panfish zooming in for a meal of scrambled eggs and if he’s lucky, avoided the hook-anointed rubber worms cast into his nest from the sky.
By the time his offspring have departed the area, the male bass is but a tired shadow of his former self. And so hungry he can almost be forgiven for his energetic attempts to eat any of his children he meets in the days to come.
As I write this a juvenile red-tailed hawk is squawking its way across the sky above me, screeching for help from its mother, who orbits high above. Finally, in desperation, the youngster lands on top of a Douglas fir, with all the grace of a flying sloth. Mom tries to talk the adolescent back into the air but when it refuses, she simply knocks the idiot child out of the tree and back into the air. Talk about tough love.
We humans could take a lesson…you can bet that kid’s not going to be in the nest much longer.