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Fancy a shag? Animal parents that are way more progressive than we are

The hilarious Thom Adams is back with tales of parenting from the animal world that are heart warming and terrifying. Definitely the only parenting post you will read today that includes the line “those fucking penguins”.

In my last article I suggested that it was unhealthy to compare ourselves to good animal parents. I thought it would help us to feel better about letting things slip occasionally. Like that time your kid pulled a biscuit that was who knows how old from underneath the car seat and crammed it into their mouth. Unfortunately, I now realise that by showcasing the worst parenting styles, I’ve misrepresented how good humans are and opened us up to complacency. Some of you are now sitting on your laurels thinking you’re all that. So let me clarify something.

We’re shit.

That is, we’re shit in comparison with some animal parents. And yes, you should feel bad. I mean just look!

Emperor Tamarins 

Now I’ve never seen the movie Bridget Jones’s Baby but from the five seconds of a trailer I saw and an almost Holmesian ability to extrapolate, I believe I can piece together the plot. Bridget Jones gets pregnant, and due to a series of unlikely events, there are two possible candidates for the father. Both men get involved in her preparing for the birth, leading to many hilarious situations. There are laughs, tears, and at least one point where a misinterpretation of certain events creates conflict. Ultimately, everyone ends up happy, except for one person who dies horribly in a tragic duck feeding accident. Boom.

None of this, however, would be funny to any Emperor tamarins watching this film. Uplifted tamarins I assume, who have been given an understanding of the English language and Western societal norms. Those tamarins would be sitting in the theatre losing their shit over the popcorn and wondering what the big deal is. Of course Bridget would be having sex with more than one male. How else can you ensure that they’ll both be invested in the raising of the child? Why did one male leave in the end? He should be carrying the young while Bridget goes and forages for food. How else can he prove that he’s a suitable mate? She won’t breed with him next time what that kind of behaviour. This movie makes no sense.

Emperor tamarins are polyandrous, meaning the female will breed with multiple males. These males will carry the young for her while she forages, bringing them to her to feed but otherwise letting her move around freely. It makes a hell of a lot of sense from an energy standpoint. Milk doesn’t grow on trees, and producing it means the female tamarins need to eat a significant amount more. Spreading the load of caring for your young means that everyone has a much greater chance of survival by saving energy. I’d compare it to daycare, but as anyone who actually has a kid in daycare will agree, not a lot of savings ends up happening.

All sounds very progressive doesn’t it? It gets worse. I remember working at a zoo and spending some time with the primate keepers. They took me to see a couple of pygmy marmosets (a close relative to the tamarin), one of whom was a mother with a newly born baby. Her mate had died, so the keepers decided to pair her with a single male. Within days he was carrying around her baby for her. That’s right. These tiny rat monkeys have absolutely nailed step-parenting and I can almost guarantee you there was no point where the young start shouting, “You’re not even my real dad!”.

The moral of this is that it takes a village, or in this case, a troop, to raise a child.

Except for sometimes, when all it takes is a lifetime of devotion. Witness the albatross.

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Albatross

I used to be a guide on the Otago Peninsula, the only mainland roosting site for the Northern Royal Albatross, and I’ve heard some things. The stories that come out about those albatross are the match of any Shortland Street plotline, and probably better written (the joke being that a group of seabirds could write more compelling dialogue by slapping their feet on a keyboard). Threesomes, age gaps of fifty years, and that one lesbian couple who somehow managed to lay a viable egg, it’s all there. But at the heart of these scandals is a story of a deep, enduring, commitment to joint parenting.

See, albatross parents almost perfectly split the load when it comes to raising their young. Mum carries and lays the egg, but once it’s out Dad is right in there (or Mum, with regards to the lesbian albatross). Albatross have to travel huge distances to find their food, which consists mostly of dead or dying squid, so while one sits on the egg, the other is away feeding. Crossover is an hour at most, enough time for a catch up on what’s for dinner, a comment on how the garden is getting away from us, and maybe a quick shag. Did I mention there’s a colony of shags underneath the albatross nesting area? There’s a colony of shags underneath the albatross nesting area. Who watch while the albatross have gangly bird sex.

When the chick hatches, both parents take turns at feeding. First, it’s a weird oily milk substance that both mum and dad produce. That’s right chaps, father albatross are so devoted to taking their fair share that they make their own milk while here I am hoping my daughter doesn’t eat all of her dinner because it’s basically ord’eurves for me. Now that they’re eating for two, that changeover period is even shorter. Enough for a comment on the length of the lawn and maybe a short grind before one heads off for more food. And more food. And more food until that chick ends up heavier than the parents. It’s important, because it takes nearly a year for the chick to reach adulthood and in that time it has to deal with the frigid Dunedin winter. Also the frigid Dunedin summer

This goes on for a year, until eventually that chick is old enough to take to the skies itself. At which point Mum and Dad, seeing their hard work become a dot in the distance, go on holiday for a year. Apart. Because they’ve both seen different Netflix series and if they don’t catch up they won’t have anything to talk about when they start trying for the next chick. And over and over again for the rest of their lives.

Pretty sweet isn’t it? I hope you appreciate that I went this whole section without shoehorning in the phrase ‘with an albatross hanging around his dick’. It would have been so easy. But I didn’t. My wife is going to be super proud.

Speaking of long suffering mothers…

The Real Octomum

‘March of the Penguins’ did great things for our perception of the devotion Emperor Penguin parents show each other. Oh my god! Dad sits there for like two whole months caring for the egg while Mum goes off to feed. Awww, and then she comes back and they have this super sweet kiss time before Dad goes to feed himself. And they do that over and over until the chick is ready to leave home! It’s like love wore a tuxedo!

If deep-sea octopodes* could vomit, they would after hearing this. Two months to care for an egg? Try fifty three. Fifty. Three. Months. These octopus mothers spend over four years caring for their eggs. At nearly one and a half kilometres below the waters surface, it’s hella cold meaning metabolisms are slow. The young take a long time to grow, and in their eggs they’re extremely vulnerable. Therefore the longer the mother spends caring for them, the more likely it is that they’ll survive. So she does, for four years.

But that’s not the only thing she’d find sickening about those fucking penguins.

Oh, they have to go for a couple of months without food? SHE NEVER EATS. The mother octopus literally doesn’t eat a single thing the whole time. Her body just slowly wastes away as she meticulously cleans and protects her eggs from crabs and James Cameron. Thankfully, that slow metabolism that makes her kids take their time also means she’s able to go without food for literally years. And when they hatch? Does Mum go off and finally eat that brie she wanted so much? No. She dies. She dies after four years of not eating and watching eggs do sweet fuck all. What an incredible sacrifice.

And where is Dad throughout all of this you may ask? Why is that deadbeat not bringing food or taking his own turns? Bad news. Dad octopus is dead. Dad’s dead after his arm detached from his body and swam towards Mum carrying a package of sperm. A package that she may or may not have carried around for a few weeks before deciding to impregnate herself. Actually, now that I think about it, dying might actually be preferable to having to explain how that works to the kids. God, I’m dreading just having to explain to my daughter what poop is.

And there we are. I should stress that all three of these parenting styles are the result of a specific set of environmental and physiological factors, and that it would be unrealistic of us to compare them with our own parenting styles. But still. You could probably do better.

*Yes, the plural of octopus is octopodes. I don’t care how dumb it sounds. Go complain to the stupid Greeks. The ancient ones, not the ones with the big fat weddings. Oh, and don’t bother watching that movie. It hasn’t aged well.

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.

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