10 astonishing animal parents

From feeding their young with their own flesh to spending nearly a decade teaching essential life skills, some animal parents go to extraordinary lengths to raise their family

There's more than one way to successfully pass on your genes. Many species don't invest in caring for their offspring at all, simply going for large numbers and leaving it for the strongest few to survive.

Others, however, invest heavily in trying to give their young the best start in life.

Here are 10 animals with truly astonishing parental strategies to ensure the success of the next generation.

1. Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii)

Weddell seals are one of the many species in which mothers must take on the mammoth task of raising babies, and equipping them with essential life stills, single-handedly.

Making this job even tougher, these dedicated parents live around the Antarctic, where conditions are among the most extreme on Earth.

A Weddell seal mother’s extraordinary investment begins with an 11-month pregnancy. Once her baby is born, she must quickly teach it how to survive the Antarctic’s dangerous waters and landscape. At just two weeks old, seal pups are coaxed by their mothers into the water. One essential lesson is learning to navigate the underwater landscape, finding the best air holes to avoid becoming trapped under the ice. And on the ice, mothers teach their babies to use their teeth to open new air holes and to file back existing ones to stop them freezing over.

Mums raise a baby every year in this freezing environment. And, although it is physically draining, she has an extra trick up her sleeve: she provides her baby with milk that consists of 60% fat – the most calorific of any mammal milk – to aid its quick development.

2. Orangutans (Pongo genus)

Orangutan mothers take single parenting to the next level. These highly intelligent apes, found in rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, look after their young for eight years; longer than any other animal single parent.

Female Sumatran orangutans only have a baby once every nine years (they continue to have babies into their 40s), and because they take such a long time to raise each one, mum and baby build exceptionally strong social bonds.

There is much to learn during the eight years mothers care for their young. One vital lesson in a deep forest home is where to find edible fruit and when these treats are ripe and good to eat.

Perhaps the most complex task a young apprentice picks up from its mother is nest building.

Young start to practise at six months old and it takes about three or four years for them to develop the skills to successfully build mattresses for sleeping in the tree tops. Offspring learn by taking interest in their mothers’ nest building and have been seen trying to lend a helping hand.

See the strong bond between a mother orangutan and her baby, in the Sumatran rainforest. 

3. Caecilians (Gymnophiona)

So extreme is some single mums’ dedication to their young’s survival that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves to give their babies a good meal.

Caecilians look like huge worms but are in fact amphibians. They are found in almost every rainforest but these extraordinary animals spend most of their time in underground lairs.

Here, the mother feeds her larvae by letting them lick a secretion at an opening on her body called a “cloaca”. And in a more gruesome twist, she lets her babies, which have sharp tiny teeth, tear off and eat her fatty, nutrient-rich skin. She re-grows her skin every three days to keep feeding them.

But other self-sacrificing animal mums go even further. A black lace weaver spider mother will switch on her babies’ cannibalistic instinct by pushing down on top of her spiderlings, which then devour her. And a pseudoscorpion mother will similarly sacrifice herself: if she fails to find her babies food, she exposes her juicy joints to allow them to suck their mother dry.  

4. Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

When it comes to Herculean parental pair work, Adelie penguin mums and dads are stars of the animal world, making huge efforts to bring up their precious babies in sub-zero Antarctic conditions.

First, males, after returning from a 5,000km (about 3,100 mile) journey since leaving the colony the previous year, must travel over ice to a bare rock nesting site – their eggs would perish on frozen ground. Here they frantically repair their “love nests” in anticipation of their long-term mate returning to the site where they have nested year-on-year.

A successful nest must be built using stone piles to keep the egg off the ground. So prized are these stones that some penguins have been seen turning criminal to get rocks from neighbours’ nests.

When the females finally arrive and lay eggs, parents take it in turns to keep their egg continuously incubated: if it is left in the cold for more than five minutes it will never hatch. Mums and dads rotate fishing expeditions until their ravenous babies grow almost as large as them.

Adelie penguin dads are among the hardest working animal fathers – but it’s an all or nothing parental strategy. If the father goes missing, the mother will abandon the nest because it is impossible for her to raise her chick alone.

5. Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)

Clownfish, the starring animal of the animated film about paternal love Finding Nemo, make brilliant parents in real life.

They do this by working together.

Before the arrival of their young, they meticulously clean an anemone to transform it into a perfect nursery, covering their own skin with protective mucus to prevent paralysing anemone stings.

Once the eggs are laid and fertilised, clownfish dads clean them until they hatch, and both parents fan the developing babies with their fins to provide them with a constant supply of oxygen-rich water to increase their chances of survival.

6. Strawberry poison-dart frog (Oophaga pumilio)

Another super parent pair of the animal world is the diminutive strawberry poison dart frog.
After females lay their eggs on the rainforest floor, the finger-nail-sized frog dads keep guard from predators and urinate on them daily to keep them moist.

But the action really starts when the clutch hatches into tiny tadpoles. If they are left together the babies will eat each other. So to keep them all safe, mother frogs transport each and every baby, individually, on her back up into trees to find a safe pool of water in which to deposit them separately.

She then visits each individual nursery pool every day for about 50 days to lay an unfertilised egg in the pools to keep her babies fed. Meanwhile, father frogs continuously guard the territory to stop rivals finding the babies.

7. African elephant (Loxodonta africana)

In elephants, entire family groups bring up the tiniest members of the herd.  

African elephants roam savannahs as herds of females, led by a matriarch. Elephants live for up to 70 years and females produce a new calf every three or four years. Their pregnancies are incredibly long – almost 2 years.

In times of danger group parenting comes into its own as all the older elephants form an outward-facing circle when under threat, keeping the vulnerable calf protected in the middle .

Occasionally baby elephants are kidnapped by females from other groups. When this happens, the baby’s entire herd might group together, looking more powerful and threatening, in order to get back their precious cargo.

8. Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki)

Sea lions on the Galápagos Islands have a fail-safe parenting system in place which sees babies well fed, protected, and with plenty of time to play and practise vital life skills.

Groups of up to 30 mothers, often already with “toddlers”, give birth on a beach which is under continuous guard by a single male. Mothers are part of his harem but benefit because they have plenty of time to feed. This prime location comes complete with a “nursery pool” where they can drop off their babies from a week old to play with other pups and be watched over by a rotating cycle of female carers.

Older offspring take to the shallows to practise their hunting skills, especially by teasing the island’s marine iguanas.

9. Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

The Caribbean flamingo – the brightest member of the flamingo family also known as the American flamingo – has a unique strategy to ensure its babies have a healthy start.

Both mother and father flamingos feed their little one with red "milk". Now, these birds haven't suddenly grown mammary glands. But flamingos and a few other birds (the others being pigeons and male emperor penguins) can make a nutrient rich substance in a part of their digestive tract called the crop – a muscular pouch near the gullet or throat.

The nutritious liquid is full of fat and protein – just like normal milk. This allows chicks to feed before their bills are ready to filter crustaceans and algae out of the water to eat.

Both sexes can make milk because both male and female produce a hormone called prolactin. And the unusual food contains chemicals which give the baby its pink colouration. The process, meanwhile, leaves its parents pale and washed out.

10. Giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini)

The 4m-long giant Pacific octopus – the largest octopus species in the world – lays and tends to one super brood of about 100,000 eggs.

So dedicated are these mothers to their eggs, carefully caressing them to keep them clean and supplied with oxygen, that they have no chance to feed or look after themselves.

After six months of dedicating themselves solely to safeguarding their eggs, the mothers die once the eggs hatch.

The giant Pacific octopus, however, is not the record holder for dedicated brooding.

One deep-sea octopus was recorded guarding her eggs for four years and five months, in a Pacific Ocean canyon off the Californian coast in the US. The scientists who observed her from a submarine said it was likely she didn’t eat for this entire time.

Animal Super Parents begins on BBC One on Friday 24 July at 19:00 BST for viewers in the UK.

See more clips from the series on the Animal Super Parents website.

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