When I was a kid, we were taught that animals knew everything they needed to know the moment they were born (or hatched). This “master plan” for survival was called instinct. Today, it’s known that many animals learn important skills from their parents (usually their moms) and from their experiences in the wild.
Instinct still explains many animal behaviors, such as spiders making webs and roaches scurrying under toasters so they don’t get squashed by a rolled-up magazine. But when it comes to mammals and birds, lots of babies are “home-schooled” to help them succeed when they go out into the world.
Predators — or animals that live by killing and eating other animals — play-fight with their siblings as babies. This instinctive behavior develops their muscles and the coordination they will need to hunt. But when it comes to the specifics of catching and killing prey, they learn a lot from mom.
Like humans, the first “food” other baby mammals get is their mother’s milk. After a period of weeks or months, it’s time to eat meat. At first, grown-ups bring back killed prey or, in the case of wolves, regurgitate (throw up) what they’ve eaten so the pups can dine in style. As babies grow older, moms bring back wounded prey so youngsters can hone their killing skills. Eventually, babies venture out with mom to watch (and participate) in the hunt.
Seals, sea lions and dolphins catch fish and release them in front of their young. They repeat this behavior many times until the baby learns how to grab and eat the prey before it can get away.
Herbivores don’t kill for their dinner, but they still need an education to survive. Orangutan babies stay with their moms for eight years. Mothers teach their offspring what foods to eat and where to find them depending on the season of the year. There’s a lot to learn because orangutans eat leaves, flowers, a variety of insects and lots of fruit.
Baby elephants don’t know how to use their trunks right after birth. At first, they swing them around randomly, suck them and even step on them. Like us, practice makes perfect, and by watching mom they eventually learn how to use their trunks to feed, bathe and cool themselves.
Recent studies suggest that some parrots use specific “peeps” to name their chicks and that the chicks learn their names over time. Bottlenose dolphins use clicks and whistles that function as names for members of a pod.
Gorillas raised in captivity may not have had a chance to observe how mothers nurture their young. As a result, they may reject their own babies because they never learned how to comfort and nurse them.
Some animals end up in rehabilitation centers because they were abandoned as infants. These animals (both predator and prey) have to be “taught” by human caretakers how to survive in the wild. This is not an easy task, and many animals are unable to be released from their sanctuaries.
The next time you go for a walk, think twice if you overhear a mother squirrel chitter to her baby as you pass by. She might be saying, “That’s the bozo who threw out his pumpkin before we had a chance to eat it!”
Bennett is a Washington pediatrician. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes past KidsPost articles and other cool stuff.