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‘The miracle of horrific biology’: How the animal kingdom proves that pregnancy sucks for everyone

Our Animals Expert and dad Thom Adams looks at the wonders of pregnancy in the wild and comes away with a powerful message for pregnant women everywhere: next time you’re feeling like shit because your heartburn is killing you, just be thankful you’re not carrying a third of your own bodyweight in eggs.

I’ll say right now, I’m entering into risky territory. As someone who has never, and will never, be pregnant, it’s extraordinarily stupid of me, mindnumbingly in fact, to comment on the difficulties of pregnancy. I do know that the experience of pregnancy ranges from ‘I glow in the rich warmth of life’ to ‘Get this thing out of me, in the name of God why are there still six months still to go?’, but that’s simply not enough. What I can do though, is offer some comforting nuggets of information.

Mums, you’re not alone. If they could only talk, there are several animals that would gladly join you for a bitch session about the horrific things that happen while you carry out hands-free complex biological engineering inside your body. If I could think of what the pregnant-woman equivalent of a dick-waving competition was, I’d say that’s not the intent of this article, but also I can’t think of one so wave your dicks all you please.

Kiwi

If you were ever a member of the Kiwi Conservation Club, the inclusion of our national bird on this list probably isn’t a surprise. But given I’ve never met anyone who was a member of the Kiwi Conservation Club, I’m assuming that you’re all shocked.

In my last post, I talked about good animal parents. I’d put kiwi in that category for the same reasons I put the albatross in there. They spread the load, and I think they spread the load fairly evenly. The difference is who takes the load when. Mum carries the egg, and after it’s laid, Dad incubates it. It’s logical. Really logical once you understand what Mum goes through.

Turns out the kiwi has the largest egg to body size ratio in the bird kingdom. “Oh, but most bird eggs are small so it can’t be that bad”, I hear you say. “Fuck you”, would be the response of the mother kiwi, “Fuck you and your tiny offspring that takes up so little of your body cavity.”

A quarter of her body weight. That’s how big this egg gets. A quarter of her body weight. In human terms, that’s basically the equivalent to giving birth to a three year old. Now imagine being a first time mum. You have no idea what’s supposed to happen, except that your own mother started laughing hysterically when you made the big announcement.

At first, everything seems fine.

Then, after about 10 days, you start noticing that you’re feeling a bit heavy. It becomes increasingly difficult to stand up, or to tie your little kiwi boots.

At 20 days, you’re beginning to get worried. At what point does the egg actually get laid? How the fuck is it supposed to get out? Why won’t it stop growing?!

At 25 days you start to worry that if you step too hard you’ll fall through the earth and not stop until you reach Madrid. You realise, oh my God, I’m going to have to lay this thing.

Once you reach 27 days, the egg has grown so large that it has taken up almost all of the inside of your body. You’re now more egg than kiwi. There’s no room for anything else, so eating is right out of the question. In desperation you start sitting in puddles to take the weight off just a little bit.

After 30 days, it comes out. The equivalent to a three year old. There is no God. All kiwi are atheists. Militant atheists.

Of course, Dad’s been feeling super guilty about this whole time. He’s done his best to keep her water bottle filled and go out to grab whatever the insectivore equivalent to a Double Down is, but short of constructing a small trolley for her to wheel herself around on, there’s not much he can do. As soon as that egg’s out though, he’s onto it. Literally. Dad takes over the incubation and he will not eat until that thing is hatched. As for Mum? It’s pretty understandable that she doesn’t want anything to do with that thing until it stops looking like the instrument of her torture.

And she’s not the only one. Witness, the seahorse.

Seahorses

I was going to avoid doing seahorses in this article because the fact that male seahorses get ’pregnant’ is about as well known as the fact that there isn’t actually any Paeroa in L&P anymore. To sum it up, female seahorses lay their eggs into a special pouch on the male where they eventually hatch and are birthed into the world through the miracle of horrific biology.

However, as with most things, it turns out that male seahorses getting pregnant is actually a bit more complex than you might think. Some might argue that his pregnancy doesn’t really count, and those people are kind of bastards when you think about it. More like bastards when you realise that inside of that pouch is essentially the same environment you’d expect inside of a pregnant female. Hell, he even produces prolactin, the hormone that makes mammals produce milk. And I don’t think he even produces milk, he’s just doing it to prove a point. That point? Fuck you I’m pregnant.

Problem is, even with all that hard work, he’s still doing an easier job than the female. It comes down to energy. The male, even with all the extra weight, the nurturing and prolactin production, is still expending less energy than the female overall. Seems unfair right? The one time the male of a species would have a legitimate reason to complain during pregnancy and he still can’t. Even though he’s literally carrying one third of the female’s weight in eggs.

Yes. One third of her weight in eggs. The human equivalent to producing a five year old except a five year old made out of hundreds of gelatinous eggs. Can you imagine the amount of energy that must take? Yeah. Go fuck yourself kiwi, you flightlessly ironic emblem of the New Zealand Air Force, with your egg weighing 25 percent of your body weight. Try a third and then go and talk to the female seahorse. I have half a mind to go up and delete your section. Poser.

Given this huge energy expenditure, it stands to reason that the female seahorse expects the male seahorse to woo the shit out of her. For days he has to dance around her, grab sea grass, change colour, and repeatedly flex his egg pouch to show its emptiness. I also imagine he has to avoid saying stupid things like, ‘Are we actually fish?’ and ‘Clip clop clip clop, because we’re… you know’. Then she finally deposits the eggs in his pouch, or risks having to just blast them off into the water. After that, he goes to make a comment about how he’s going to be eating for one thousand now and immediately stops upon meeting the glare of a female seahorse who now looks like an emptied tube of toothpaste. He promises never to say anything ever again, and so the circle of life continues as it should.

Fish are weird. Speaking of weird fish…

Tiger sharks

“Why do shark babies cannibalise each other in the womb?” is a question you never knew you wanted to ask with an answer you probably know that you don’t want to hear.

Of course, the question was originally, “Hmm, why do sand tiger sharks only give birth to two young?” It’s a bit odd. Most fish species tend to have multiple young, and sharks are no different. So you do some research, you do a few dissections, and you realise that most sand tiger shark litters start off with about 12 siblings. Which leads to the next question, “What the hell happened to the other 10?”. Oh, and at one point there’s probably another question, “OH GOD IS IT BITING ME? WHY IS IT BITING ME?!”. I think this gives some insight into the question at the start of this paragraph.

Yeah. Sand tiger shark babies are fucking brutal in the womb. While human mums are looking down and high-fiving their growing child’s tiny hand pushing against her belly, shark mums are looking down and seeing a menacing fin circling its prey. While human babies are getting hilarious things like the hiccups or kicking Mum’s bladder, sand tiger sharks are taking part in the literal hunger games. Womb edition.

But why? Why is this anything like a good idea? Well as it turns out, it does make sense in a weird, cannibalistic shark baby kind of way. It started with some paternity tests. First, they took a look at the litter before they began gobbling each other up. In the larger litters, the young had multiple fathers. Then they took a look at the paternity of the pairs of babies after the cannibalism had run its course. Same father.

The conclusion is easy to draw. What starts off as a peaceful womb full of half-siblings inevitably descends into all-out war. Like the Brady Bunch but with broken bottles and a lust for blood. And without the inevitable awkward sexual tension (seriously, they could never make that show today). By the end of this murderfest, only two remain. Two triumphant, fully related baby sharks empowered by the flesh of their fallen siblings. And no sexual tension.

So if you have half-siblings, just be aware. It might be wiser to eat them before they eat you.

Now this article was never intended to show human mums how much worse things could be. It’s all relative, and I’m pretty sure every now and then human babies decide to be born out of the ear canal. The main point is, the miracle of life takes many forms. Some involving beautiful fully formed babies, and some involving fully formed cannibal babies. Because life is a tapestry, and sometimes those threads get hungry.

Thom Adams is a science educator and parent-time comedian. A gigantic nature and politics geek, he’s instilling the virtues of making accurate animal sounds in his daughter who insist on calling giraffes cows to mess with him. Follow him on Twitter.

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