Natures Dedicated Mums

Moving on from my last post regarding Tahlequah, the orca who carried her deceased newborn calf through the waters of the Pacific Northwest coast for 17 days, I wanted to keep my next post relevant but a bit more on the positive side.

Killer whales are known to be great mums. After a 17 month gestation period, they give birth to a calf that is about 8.5 ft long and weighs around 120 to 160kg. Calves are typically weaned at around 1 or 2 years old and rely on their family pod to teach them vital communication, hunting, and survival skills. Resident killer whale calves will stay with their pod permanently, meaning mother and child stay together for life.

But what other creatures go above and beyond to care for their young?

Here are six other incredible animal mothers, who prove that the mother-baby bond isn’t strictly human.

Orangutans

Orangutans have the longest infant development period of all great apes. For the first two years of their life, they are completely dependent on mum. At this stage, they make the transition from hanging onto mum’s chest to riding on her back and dabble in eating soft foods – pre-chewed by mum. Of course.

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Bornean orangutan

At around 3 to 7 years of age orangutan infants begin to gain their independence, in this space of time they will be fully weaned, begin to climb, and search for their own food. They may also start experimenting with nest building, choosing to no longer share with mum but often staying in the same tree.

Despite this new found self-sufficiency, orangutan infants will remain close to their mothers for many more years to come – they will eat, sleep and travel together until the infant is around 10 years old. Female orangutans are known to visit their mothers until they are around 15 or 16 years of age.

The bond between mother and baby orangutans is one of the strongest and most beautiful in the animal kingdom.

Kangaroos

After a gestation period of around just 34 days, baby kangaroos are born extremely underdeveloped. At birth, the young joey is only about 2cm long and weighs less than a gram! It immediately crawls through its mother’s fur and into the safety of her pouch, where it will suckle solidly for 2 months. At around 6 months of age, the joey will leave the pouch for the first time, returning regularly to feed.

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Grey kangaroo

Red kangaroos will leave the comfort of mums pouch at around 8 months but will continue to suckle until around 11 or 12 months of age. Grey kangaroos, on the other hand, don’t leave until they are 11 months and can continue to suckle until they are 18 months old. That’s one patient mum!

Did you know? Female kangaroos are able to suckle two young at the same time – one in the pouch and one outside, as well as having another egg ready for implantation.

Alligators

Mother alligators usually lay between 3550 eggs in a nest of vegetation. During incubation, the mother alligator will actively stay near the nest and protect it from predators – that includes humans. After a 65 day incubation, the baby alligators will start calling to mum from inside the eggs, these high pitched squeaks let her know it is time to remove the nesting material. After all the hatchlings have emerged from the nest, their mother will carry them gently in her mouth to the safety of the water. The young will rest on her back as she swims and call to her when they feel threatened.

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Alligator

Although these reptiles have a ferocious reputation, they are in fact very attentive. The young will stay close to mum for around a year, but they can remain together as a pod for up to three years.

Great hornbills

Great hornbills are one of the largest members of the hornbill family. Despite having a 60inch wingspan and a weight of 2.15kg to 4kg, they choose to build their nests inside a large, hollow tree trunk. The breeding pair will work together to seal the opening of the hole shut – with a plaster made from faeces, chewed wood, mud and bark, and the female will remain trapped inside while she lays the eggs, incubates them, and cares for them once they hatch. The male will bring food to the female through a small slit left in the mud “door” that is just half an inch wide, large enough to pass food to mum and chicks, but narrow enough to prevent predators getting in the nest.

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Great hornbill

A clutch usually consists of one or two eggs that the mother will incubate for around 40 days. After the chicks have hatched the male may make up to 70 feeding trips a day, bringing everything from geckos, insects and berries to frogs and slugs.

For the different species of hornbill confinement for the chicks ranges from 50 to 90 days, by that time the mother has already broken out and resealed the door, in turn keeping the chicks safer for longer.

Elephants

Elephants are the largest living and biggest-brained mammal on the planet, so it’s no surprise they have the longest gestation period of any mammal too – 18 to 22 months to be precise.

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African elephant

For the first 3 to 5 years of an elephant calves life, they are totally reliant on their mother. In this time they will be taught many life lessons, such as how to use their trunk properly for feeding, drinking and bathing. This “baby stage” lasts from birth to around 5 to 10 years of age, once the calf has been weaned off mum’s milk completely.

Like us, adulthood for elephants starts at around 18 years old. Most male elephants will now leave the main herd, while the females will remain and assist each other with nursing and caring for the new calves.

And an honourable mention goes to the…

Strawberry poison dart frog

At only one inch long the strawberry poison dart frog is an alluring creature. Not only are they smart – their bright red and black/blue colouration acts as a warning to predators that they are extremely toxic, but they are also incredibly hardworking.

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Strawberry poison dart frog

Strawberry poison dart frogs mate during any time of the year, with the females laying between 3 and 5 eggs on a leaf. The breeding pair returns every day and the male will moisten the eggs by transporting water from his cloaca (effectively urinating on them). After 10 days the eggs hatch the mother frog will transport them on her back to the axil of the Bromeliad plant – depositing one tadpole per plant. Afterwards, the mother will come to each tadpole every few days and lay up to 5 unfertilized eggs for them to eat.

After 43 52 days the tadpoles will begin to undergo metamorphosis. Pretty amazing, huh?

What’s your favourite animal mum? Let me know in the comments below!

The Gorillas of Rio Muni – The challenge of ape conservation in Equatorial Guinea

On Wednesday evening I attended an interesting lecture about ape conservation at Bristol Zoo. The hour-long talk was hosted by Dr Gráinne McCabe, a Biological Anthropologist specialising in primate behaviour and ecology, and the Head of Conservation Science at the zoo.

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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

It was only the second time I had attended such a sit-down discussion, the first being the wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan ‘Animal Families and me’ tour back in October of last year. I try not too, but I often feel a little bewildered by the other people who attend these talks – they’ve all been on such marvellous adventures! I overheard one woman sitting a couple of seats away from me talking about a recent weekend away bird watching in Finland, and another woman behind me was planning a trip to Tanzania in the coming months.

Dr McCabe spent most of the hour talking about the zoo’s newest conservation project: Protecting the western lowland gorillas for Rio Muni in the African country of Equatorial Guinea. The zoo has fourteen conservation projects running at the moment, most focused in Africa, a couple in the UK, one in the Philippines and one in Costa Rica. The projects are chosen either because that is where the zoo’s conservation team have the most expertise, it is a species the staff are particularly passionate about, or the certain animal is already kept at the zoo as part of a breeding program; like the western lowland gorilla.

Traditionally the gorilla project was focused in Cameroon, but the zoo has recently been looking for a new site to expand their project, and it was the national park of Monte Alén that caught their eye.

– WESTERN LOWLAND GORILLA: SOME FACTS –

The western lowland gorilla is critically endangered, one of two subspecies of western gorilla and the most numerous/widespread of all gorilla species. Populations can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea as well as in large areas in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The exact number of them is unknown due to their habitats being some of the densest and remote forests in Africa, but it is believed to be around 362,000 instead of 150,000 as previously thought. Shockingly 80% of the population are thought to live outside of protected areas.

They are of slightly smaller size than the other subspecies of gorilla and can be identified by the grey-brown coats and auburn chests. They also have smaller ears but wider skulls and more pronounced brow ridges.

– THE BUSH MEAT AND PET TRADE –

Equatorial Guinea is made up of two islands and a mainland portion, Monte Alén national park is in the mainland. The park is known for its beautiful forests and rich biodiversity but the population of species is drastically declining because of bushmeat hunting. The primary threat to wildlife in the country! Bushmeat, especially that of apes, sells at a higher price than standard meat available in supermarkets. Dr McCabe claimed that it is not an alternative protein source because of a lack of protein, but rather because it’s considered a luxury item and status symbol.

Smaller species such as monkeys, rats, porcupines, pythons and dwarf crocodiles are readily available and are more common because the poachers have already out hunted the larger animals. This meat isn’t being sold for much either, a python, for example, may only be worth £6 or £7.

Another huge problem is the pet trade. Gorillas and chimpanzees are taken from the wild as juveniles and sold in markets or along the side of the road, they are also kept in hotels and used as photographic props.

Other threats include Ebola and other diseases, habitat loss and particularly for the gorillas of Equatorial Guinea – persecution from crop raiding.

– NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE –

Dr McCabe noted there are plenty of areas that are perfect habits for species like crocodiles and gorillas but right now, they’re all empty. She referred to this as ‘empty forest syndrome‘ which is essentially somewhere which is beautiful and intact – wildlife should be in abundance, but instead, there’s a breakdown in the ecosystem and all the apex predators have gone. The forests are now devoid of all life and sound. It’s depressing for me to imagine, let alone for these scientists to witness.

The areas around Monte Alén national park are now all villages and within those villages are farms. Equatorial Guinea was known for its healthy oil trade but when it collapsed, many workers in the cities had to return back to the country, farming was the only way they could make a decent wage.

Now because these farms are right at the edge of the national park, gorillas have been coming from the forest and taking the crops, as a result, the farmers have been shooting them. Dr McCabe pointed out that it is actually illegal to own guns or hunt primates in Equatorial Guinea but it’s rarely enforced.

Dr McCabe and her team have established a research base camp at the national park, setting up camera traps and bioacoustics to track the gorillas, as well as any illegal activity. These cameras will also allow them to identify if it’s just the gorilla’s crop raiding, or something else because, at the minute, it is just speculation from the villagers that it’s gorillas solely causing the problem.

– SO WHAT ARE THEY PROPOSING? –

Despite how doom and gloom the presentation was, Dr McCabe remained optimistic about the future of Equatorial Guinea and the creatures that live within it. She listed a set of recommendations to the Equatorial government that the zoo has proposed, as well as some objectives for themselves:

  • Encourage larger eco-guard force in the national park
  • Offer better support for alternative livelihoods
  • Have legitimate enforcement of existing legislation
  • Continue to participate in the gorilla EEP with breeding at Bristol Zoo Gardens
  • Publicise more arrests and prosecutions
  • Establish standardised great ape (and other large mammal) monitoring programmes
  • Continue to support Ape Action Africa in Cameroon
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The Conservation Education Centre @ Bristol Zoo

If you’re local to Bristol Zoo I definitely recommend checking out their lectures. They are free to attend, no need to book and are held monthly. For more information have a quick look here: https://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/conservation-lectures