Animals raise their young in many different ways. For some species, both parents share the responsibilities of caring for their offspring. Others live in groups, with each member playing a role in the development of the young ones. Both of these parenting methods require individual organisms to cooperate in order to help their brood thrive.
Both parents are typically involved in raising human children, but this is unusual among mammals. Birds are the only animals where, in the majority of species, both parents help to take care of their young. But, as always, there are some intriguing exceptions to be found in other groups.
Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)
In the harsh climate of the Antarctic, both Emperor penguin parents play a vital role in ensuring the survival of their offspring. Laying an egg takes so much energy that a female Emperor penguin exhausts her nutritional reserves. To survive and care for her offspring, the female must go out to sea for two months to feed and build up her reserves again. She transfers her egg to her mate who keeps the egg warm by balancing it between his belly and the top of his toes. If the egg is exposed to the freezing conditions, the chick won’t survive, so the male penguin will not eat for the entire two months to protect the egg from the elements. If the egg hatches before the mother returns the father can produce a curd-like substance, full of fat and protein, from his esophagus to feed his hungry chick. When the mother returns, she and the father take turns to feed and care for their chick until it can swim and fend for itself.
Strawberry poison-dart frog (Oophaga pumilio)
The Strawberry Poison Dart Frog is no bigger than a fingernail, but both parents go to a huge amount of effort to take care of their offspring. After a female lays her 4-6 eggs on the rainforest floor, the father guards them from predators and urinates on them to keep them moist. When they hatch, mother must separate the tadpoles to prevent them from eating each other. She transports each tadpole individually on her back up into trees, finding separate pools of water in which to deposit them. Every day for about 50 days she lays an unfertilized egg in each pool to keep her babies fed while the father frog continues to guard the territory to keep them safe.
Some animals are raised in a group or extended family setting. Each member of the group plays some role in raising the younger members. Whether it be by playing with the young, gathering food, or protecting them from predation, individual organisms work together to ensure the survival of the offspring. Although this can be seen in ant and bee colonies and even within a few bird species, it is most common among mammals.
African elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Herds of elephants are often formed of a group of related females, known as “aunts.” In this group one experienced mother, the matriarch, will rule over a family with 6-12 members consisting of her offspring, sisters and sisters’ offspring.
Baby elephants (calves) are born blind and are completely dependent on their mothers and the rest of the herd, who are all involved in caring for the young. When the herd is under threat, the older elephants will form an outward-facing circle around the calves to protect them. If a baby is taken by a female of another herd, the baby’s group will gather together to appear more powerful and threatening in order to get it back.
Orcas (Orcinus orca)
Orcas are very social animals that live in pods, made up of an extended family of cousins, sisters, daughters and their offspring. These pods can vary in size from 5-50 individual orcas, and it is common for pods to travel together forming a large community containing hundreds of individuals. Young maturing females “babysit” their younger siblings to prepare for motherhood, but male members and grandmothers also watch over the young orcas.
All members of the pod play a role in raising the young ones in some way, whether it be by helping to feed them, playing with them, or teaching them valuable life skills. The whole community of orcas cooperate in caring for the pods.