Best Animal Parents

Let's investigate the best animal parents in the world!

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Most people would consider themselves pretty lucky when looking back at all the things their parents have done for them. But nature always finds a way to raise the bar that little bit higher.

From going months without sleep, to keeping their offspring safe in their stomachs, and even selfless mama’s sacrificing themselves to feed greedy offspring, let's explore some of the best animal parents on the planet.

Bratty Bugs

Insect parents aren’t exactly famous for caring for their offspring. Most simply lay their eggs and abandon them! But the mothers of Japanese red bug babies couldn’t be more different.

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Unfortunately for these mamas, their young are extremely picky eaters, only consuming fruit from one rare type of tree called the Schoepfia Jasminodora. Not only that, but it must also be perfectly ripe or else they won’t eat it! That means these marvelous moms will go out searching endlessly for the ideal piece of fruit, called a drupe.

Even after finding the illusive drupe, which weighs more than her, she must drag it all the way back to the nest. However, other Japanese red bug mothers are also on the prowl for this favored food, and they’ll jump on the chance to steal any other parent’s find.

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But, while these mothers exhaust themselves, their offspring grow increasingly impatient. If they’re left for too long, the young leave the nest in search of a foster mom, who they hope will provide them with an improved supply of fruit.

So, as one mother discovers that her own children have abandoned her, another will soon have the task of working even harder to feed double the number of mouths. For the mother bug, the relentless scavenging mission will eventually exhaust her to the point of no return.

They literally work themselves to death for their babies. But what about her children? Will they mourn over her body? Of course not. Instead, they use the corpse for one last meal, before leaving the nest with their bellies full.

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Penguin Perseverance

Being a parent is tricky enough as it is. But caring for your offspring on the freezing ice plains of the Antarctic sounds like a job from a frozen hell. And yet, that’s the fate of emperor penguin parents.

With temperatures plummeting as low as -117 Fahrenheit, it’s cold enough to ensure that just about nothing grows here! Sadly, for penguin parents, that means no material for nesting. So instead, these brave birds have devised their own nest: their dad!

Around May, the female lays a single egg, which is passed over to her partner’s brood pouch above his feet. And this is where it will stay!

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As soon as the father incubates the egg, the mother leaves to feed for two months. This means daddy must fend for himself, and the egg, all without any food. However, it’s not just hunger he must fend off. During this time, male penguins must withstand the bitter cold, along with winds up to 90 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the papa penguin has to endure the chilling Antarctic conditions for an excruciating 75 days. All while incubating an egg! For perspective, humans wouldn’t survive 15 minutes in these conditions!

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After two freezing months, the egg hatches and mom returns home. But don’t be thinking she’s got off lightly. Emperor penguins travel 50 miles to reach the open ocean to hunt for food, and this belly full of fish isn’t just for them.

After returning, they regurgitate their semi-digested meals for the chick. But the task isn’t finished there! It takes months before the chick develops the ability to hunt for itself.

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During this time, parents take turns making that long journey to open waters, to find food for themselves and their young. Finally, after 150 days, the chicks gain independence, learning to feed and care for themselves, something human kids only figure out in their early 30’s.

Crazy Caecilians

When researchers brought 21 caecilian mothers and their young into their lab for tests, they made a terrifying discovery. In the week after their eggs hatched, the small, worm-like amphibian mamas lost around one seventh of their bodyweight.

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That’s the equivalent of a human mom losing around 25 pounds! What was behind this sudden weight loss? The stress of laying eggs? The unfair societal pressure to snap back to their pre-baby weight?

The researchers found this missing bodyweight in the stomachs of the hatchlings! Unlike poor Mrs. Japanese Red Bug, however, these babies don’t eat their mother’s entire corpse. Instead, they feast on the outer layer of their mother’s skin.

The brooding mother’s skin cells are filled with fats and oils perfect for helping the hatchlings grow. In a feeding frenzy that only lasts a few minutes, the young rip apart the mother’s skin and devour it.

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But, in just two days’ time, mama caecilian’s skin will have regrown, ready for another feasting! This helps her offspring to develop at a meteoric rate. In one species, caecilian babies increased their mass by 86% in just 20 days!

You’d expect that offering yourself as a living buffet would hurt, but incredibly this activity doesn’t harm the mother. In fact, brooding caecilian mothers grow this layer of fatty skin specifically for their offspring to feed off! Still, this makes breast-feeding seem like a breeze.

Moms With a Mouthful

African cichlids are some of nature’s best parents. They swim with all their spawn rammed into their mouths. At a glance, it’s easy to assume that African cichlid fish are eating their babies. But the truth is quite the opposite!

They’re actually guzzling up their offspring as a form of protection, with a wide range of predators salivating at the prospect of picking off the cichlids young. These parents think the best route to survival is by making a nursery in their own mouth!

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The eggs remain inside the parent’s mouth until they hatch, sometimes taking up to 36 days. While the jaw-ache would be one thing, can you imagine not eating for over a month? And even after the eggs hatch, these fry aren’t safe from hungry hunters.

If the cichlid parent senses danger, she’ll use behavioral cues to alert her young to swim back into her mouth.

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One such predator is the cuckoo catfish. Disturbingly, the scent of spawning cichlids excites these predators into breeding themselves. When cuckoo catfish attack cichlids, they try and gain access to the eggs in the fish’s mouth.

However, they also leave behind some of their own eggs. That’s one way to abandon your parenting responsibilities. Sometimes, the cichlid mother will believe they’re her own eggs, and add them to her already crowded mouth. Sadly, it turns out to be a fatal decision.

Cuckoo catfish eggs hatch sooner than cichlid eggs. When they do hatch, it’s a bloodbath inside mama cichlid’s mouth, as the catfish babies gobble up all of their stepsibling roommates!

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When the murderous cuckoo catfish baby is released from the mouth, you’d think it would drive the cichlid mom into a frenzy. Yet, these guys just can’t help but be perfect parents. Despite demolishing the cichlid’s entire batch of young, the cuckoo catfish is still raised as if it’s the cichlid’s own!

In fact, African cichlids have been known to raise cuckoo catfish fry until the adopted kids gain independence. Forget being a stepparent, that’s a parent who steps up!

Barfing Babies

If you thought the mouth was an intense place to raise young, try the stomach! That was the destination of choice for the, now-extinct, platypus frog. To kick things off, the male fertilized the eggs, before the female swallowed the batch of frog spawn.

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Having around 25 embryos in your stomach sounds terrible enough, but the female also couldn’t eat while the young were inside her. In total, it took a stomach-churning seven weeks for the frogspawn to develop.

Even if mama frog refrained from dining on her own young, you’d think her stomach acid would’ve dissolved the tadpoles into a froggy froth. Amazingly, each embryo had a secret weapon hidden within their egg sacs to prevent this.

In the jelly around each egg was a substance called PGE2. This stuff had the ability to halt hydrochloric acid production in the mother’s stomach!

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But as the babies grew, her stomach would swell so much that her lungs would collapse. However, because a frog’s skin is thin and packed with blood vessels, oxygen can easily diffuse in. Meanwhile, the vessels also allow carbon dioxide to escape, allowing Mama Frog to breathe through her skin!

Finally, after seven slow weeks, it’d finally be birthing time! To release the froglets, the mother would need to throw up her babies! To make matters worse, the birthing process was spaced out over a week, meaning seven whole days of retching baby frogs. Sounds like the hangover from hell!

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Excellent Elephants

Elephants, like most mammals, give birth through the process of labor. While it’s a little more normal, it’s not painless. These mighty mammals have the longest gestation period in the animal kingdom, carrying their offspring for a grueling 94 weeks, almost two and a half times the length of a human pregnancy.

On top of that, these mothers give birth to a calf weighing around 250 lbs, equivalent to the weight of 33 human babies.

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To help bare the load of these gigantic babies, female elephant families share the mothering duties. Females will stay with their natal herd for their entire lives, forming tight familial bonds, with mother and child regularly entwining their trunks to give ‘hugs’ and ‘kisses’.

It’s not just the affectionate stuff that elephant moms have mastered, however. Caring for such a large baby requires milk, and lots of it! Elephant calves guzzle through nearly 2 ½ gallons of the stuff every day to gain some 30 lbs a week of body weight!

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As if providing an almost endless supply of milk wasn’t enough, elephant mama’s can also change their milk to suit their baby’s needs. Incredibly, these magical moms have learned to eat plants with anti-inflammatory properties to help their calf cope with teething pains!

Of course, milk alone isn’t going to ensure the baby’s survival on the unforgiving African plains. Predators, including lions, tigers and hyenas will try anything to snap up a newborn calf. If any of these killers come lurking, the entire herd will form a circle around the young elephant, like a gigantic, trunk-heavy shield.

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God forbid, if a baby elephant does get snatched by a predator, then the mother will stop at nothing to get them back. In 2021, there was a case of a mother decimating a crocodile that simply swam a little too close to her calf. Who knew elephant moms were so metal?

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Distraction Display

Elephants aren’t the only animals who’ll go to extreme lengths to save their young. The killdeer bird, found in the Americas, puts on a full Broadway performance to lead predators off the scent of their eggs.

Killdeers lay their eggs on the ground, with the eggs themselves perfectly disguised to look like rocks.

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While this camouflage is clever, it’s not always enough to trick ground dwelling predators like snakes, foxes, and cats! Fortunately, the parents are prepared! Whenever a predator sniffs out the nest, the killdeer parent will fake an injury, typically a broken wing display.

At first sight, it might look like a soccer player dramatically exaggerating an injury. However, the intention of the bird is far more sincere. Killdeers do this to draw predator’s away from the nest and onto themselves!

When a fox or large bird locks onto the parent, they walk, or hobble as far from the nest as possible. Then when they’ve dragged the predator far away enough from the nest, the ‘injured’ parent will fly back to guard their chicks again.

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The red-capped plover bird, found in Australia displays a similar distraction technique to protect their nests. Like the killdeer, these birds lay their eggs on the ground. But, unlike their American associates, the birds don’t simply fake an injury.

The plover goes into full deception mode, by running with a hunched back and lowered tail, this bird perfectly mimics a rodent running. And just like that the predators are drawn away!

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Trypophobia Toad

With its flat, pancake-like appearance, the Surinam toad, located in South America, looks more like roadkill than a living amphibian! But if you think their appearance is a bit freaky, you won't believe how they give birth.

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When mating, the male will latch onto the female’s back. The pair then do somersaults in the water, with the male holding on like he’s riding in a rodeo! At the top of each loop, the female releases some eggs, which the male then fertilizes, and positions into the skin on her back. Eventually, the skin on the female’s back swells and the eggs sink into her skin.

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This exercise can take hours, and by the end of it the female can have up to a hundred eggs pressed into her back. Mama toad quickly grows a layer of skin to cover the spawn and protect them from any predators. It also means she never has to leave her brood, talk about being a helicopter parent!

Once they’ve made their cozy home in mom’s flesh, it can take up to four months for the eggs to grow into toadlets. Just imagine having 100 babies growing inside your back for 120 days!

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Like that wasn’t sick enough already, here comes the gruesome part. When they’re ready, the toadlets kick their way out of their mother’s skin and into the world. This leaves the mother’s skin dotted with dozens of tiny holes; a sight to send trypophobia suffers into a full meltdown!

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As painful as it sounds to have 100 baby toads forcing their way out of tiny holes in your back, the mother doesn’t experience any discomfort. Miraculously, the female’s back appears ‘healed’ in just 24 hours. Forget stretchmarks, these mothers have stretchholes!

Dedicated Dolphins

Human parents know the struggles of sleep deprivation thanks to the cries of a restless newborn baby. But if you think that’s already rough, you won't believe what bottlenose dolphin moms have to go through.

From birth, bottlenose dolphin babies don’t sleep for at least a month. As a result, their mothers, who have to keep up with and protect them, also don’t sleep for the first month!

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One study concluded that the mother’s eyes remain open for 99.6% of the time during the calves first two months! The longest time a human lasted without sleep was 11 days, but any more than three days without sleep can be life-threatening.

Researchers believe that the strange behavior allows these aquatic mammals to constantly rise to the surface to breathe. This then causes rapid brain development in the calf. Constant swimming and wakefulness also protect the mother and calf from predators, as well as keeping up the baby’s body temperature before they build up a layer of warm blubber.

Incessant tiredness is quite the sacrifice for a mother to make, but bottlenose dolphins don’t stop there! They even look to raise babies from other species! In 2014, researchers spotted a dolphin mother caring for her own calf, and an adopted melon-headed whale calf, which stayed with her for over 3 years.

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The cross-species adoption was made all the more bizarre by the fact that these mothers usually raise one calf at a time. Either bottlenose dolphins love being moms, or they just really hate sleep.

Octop-arent

In the deeper depths of the ocean, octopus mothers are also making sacrifices for their offspring.

At first glance, these eight-limbed mollusks don’t appear overly caring. However, in 2014, scientists recorded a deep-sea octopus in the Pacific Ocean, brooding her eggs for an astonishing 53 months, the longest recorded time of any animal on the planet.

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But that ain’t the half of it. Most octopuses are semelparous, meaning they die after reproducing. Although for some, it’s not as simple as that. Instead, Californian two-spot octopus mothers go into full self-destruct mode.

Before their eggs have time to hatch, they’ll slam themselves against rocks, stop eating, tear off their tentacles and even begin to consume themselves.

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In 2018, analysis of a Californian two-spot octopus showed that after egg-laying, the genes in the optic glands started to produce increased amounts of 7-DHC. This is a toxic compound, which can lead to intellectual disability, self-harm, and physical abnormalities in both octopuses, and humans!

So, why do octopus moms produce this toxic compound at this point? It may seem like that they’re setting their kids up to fail, with no one to teach or protect them. However, scientists believe that this behavior is all for the benefit of the babies. One theory is that the dramatic death display deters predators from the eggs.

Yet, the most likely explanation suggests something rather more unsettling. As octopuses are cannibals, there’s a belief that the increase in production of 7-DHC prevents the mothers from eating their own young. Instead of eating their own offspring, the mothers choose to essentially, end themselves.

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Honorary Hornbills

Most people struggle with small spaces, but try small spaces, with children screaming at you. Some of you will be having Vietnam-style flashbacks to having young children in the 2020 lockdown. Well, that’s the life of a hornbill mother.

When looking at these birds, found throughout Asia and Africa, you may be drawn to their beautiful colors, or the huge bill above their beaks. Yet, their parenting methods are even more fascinating. In nearly all species of hornbill, the mother will nest in tree cavities or rock crevasses, to protect their young from predators.

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The slit is too small for predator birds to get into, and too high up for mammalian hunters. Once the mother settles into her new home, the male will bring lumps of soil and excrement, dampening them with saliva to build a layer of mud around the nest. Eventually all that’s left is a tiny hole connecting the mother with the outside world.

After settling in, the mother will lay her eggs. In larger species of the hornbill, the eggs can take as long as 45 days to hatch. During that time, females have to deal with any toilet needs. They push their backside against the slit and fire excrement as far away as possible, to keep predators off the scent of the nest.

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After the chicks hatch, mama hornbill then has the unenviable task of dealing with her screaming children in a tiny space. Sounds like the maternity ward from hell! There’s also the small matter of food and that’s where dad comes in.

Once the chicks are hatched, he must make around 70 feeding trips to the nest per day. Without the need to fly while in the nest, hornbill mothers shed their flight feathers. This means, if the male were to never return to the nest, the mother and chicks would all starve to death.

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Luckily, most hornbills mate for life, so there’s no worries of dad leaving! Finally, after months of squatting in a cramped, dark, noisy hellhole, the mother can leave her nest and begin to raise their chicks. Ah, the joys of parenting!

Zombie Salmon

Everyone’s got that one main goal in life. What’s yours? Maybe it’s getting a dream car? Working the perfect job? Well, in the case of salmon, it’s swimming thousands of miles upstream to spawn.

Baby salmon are born in freshwater rivers upstream. In time, adolescent salmon make the long journey downstream to the ocean, seeking a greater supply of food. After several years of living their best lives in the ocean, the now adult salmon make the colossal trip back to where they spawned all those years ago.

In this huge migration, known as the ‘salmon run’, the fish can swim as far as 2,000 miles upstream, swimming across anything if they have to, including flooded roads! That’s the same as traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago. But you have to swim it. And it’s all upstream.

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Scientists believe that salmon are able to locate their way home through Earth’s magnetic field, as they’re born with an in-built magnetic map to help them navigate. While it must be pretty cool to have an inbuilt GPS in your head, it wouldn’t make the long trip any less exhausting.

But why do salmon make the deadly trek? The answer lies in their dedication to improving their offspring’s lives. The upstream freshwaters give salmon offspring the best chance of survival as there are less predators, a range of hiding places and more oxygenated water.

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It’s time for the part where the salmon spawn and make a happy family, right? Unfortunately, nature’s never that simple. The murderous task of migrating pushes most species of salmon to the brink of death. But rather than passing away gracefully, some species of salmon go through something truly shocking.

Once their eggs are laid, the salmon’s life mission is complete. So, they just stop eating. Soon, the starvation and tiredness of the migration causes their body to rot from the inside out. It doesn’t take long for the rot to spread to their skin, causing their flesh to fall off. In some cases, they’ll even lose their eyes, until they resemble something from the ‘Walking Dead’.

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No prizes for guessing why they’re called ‘zombie salmon’! The eerie-looking salmon don’t even survive long enough to see their eggs hatch. Nature really is unfair sometimes.

Drastic Desert Spider

With eight legs, a raised abdomen, and vampire-like fangs, spiders definitely aren’t everybody’s favorite animal. But while people like me find spiders terrifying, the lengths Desert Spider mothers go to provide for their offspring are even more so!

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After mating, the female desert spider produces more digestive enzymes to help break down her prey. As a result, she’ll eventually be able to retain more nutrients when regurgitating food for her offspring.

After the spiderlings hatch, the mother will never eat again. Instead, she makes a broth from regurgitated prey. The digestive enzymes also break down the inside of the mother herself. Everything gets digested, except for the heart, guts and ovaries!

The mother will regurgitate this devilish dish for two whole weeks, spewing up 41% of her body mass. Disgusting as it sounds, the babies lap the liquid gunk up, helping them to grow three times their original size. Sounds like Satan’s version of a protein shake.

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Eventually, the food supply will run out. So, is now the time for the spiderlings to catch their own prey? That would be too easy. Instead, they make one last use of mama: dinner!

The spiderlings pierce the abdomen of their mother, before draining her insides! Instead of fleeing from the nightmarish scene, the mom simply lies there and lets herself be eaten alive. After the massacre, all that’s left is 4% of the mother’s original body mass.

Those spiderlings really don’t hold back! With a belly full of mom, the spiderlings vacate the nest, leaving behind their mother’s empty exoskeleton.

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If you were amazed at the best parents in the animal kingdom, you might want to read about the worst animal parents! Thanks for reading.

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