Babies Galore

Babies Galore

Nothing is more fascinating than the way that different species provide for the welfare of their babies. It even starts with the variation in the development of their placentas, which is a study of it’s own. You all know how human babies are cared for. Now listen to this. Some animals go to great lengths over a long period to provide infinite care and food while others just give basic food but otherwise just drop their offspring and leave it with the virtual attitude of,”You are on your own mate“, but they are not so callous as this might seem. There is always a reason.

Take the comparison between the Rabbit and the Hare. The Rabbit has a gestation period of just 30 days, but then produces naked young in an underground burrow where she suckles them in comfort. The Brown Hare, on the other hand, gestates for 42 days but then drops young which are fully developed. They never go underground but spread out and each scrapes a hollow in the ground, called a form, into which it settles and, remaining perfectly still, becomes invisible. The mother visits three times a day to suckle them but with care because predators are watching. The leverets separate so that if one is discovered, the others have a chance, and from birth they can run. The Hare also has a clever trick to make the most of the February to October breeding window. About two weeks before birthing she can conceive again. This means that when the existing tenants of her uterus move out into the world there is a developing set of foetuses ready to take their place. Thus, for a time, the Hare is permanently pregnant, but to achieve this the sperm of the buck have to journey through and over the growing tenants of the uterus, a journey which is akin to the homeward travels of Odysseus. If you don‘t think that amazing you must be hard to please. Moreover the doe does not come on heat but ovulates after mating, and the famous boxing matches of hares can often be between doe and buck when she is telling him to get lost. So, you see, she is in charge of the whole sex business. That should please the feminists!

Yet other species have another method. Whereas the Rabbit, Bats, and most mammals nurture helpless young, and remember the most extreme of those is the Marsupial which carries it’s young in a special pouch on it’s abdomen, or the big cats which scare the hell out of any potential predator, some species just produce young which within a short time can join and keep up with the herd for protection. In this group we have the Ungulates or those that evolved even beyond and have only one toe. In the Ungulates we have Cattle, Sheep, Deer etc. whose young are licked clean by the mother and are soon ready to join the adults on long shaky legs. Even so the Deer may leave it’s young hidden whilst gaining strength, but remember how agile the adults are. No youngster could keep up with that. The second, single-toed group is also fast and includes the Horse and it’s wild variants, Zebras, Wildebeest etc. Here the young are soon able to keep up with the herd with the aid of their long legs.

One would have to be very hard-bitten to fail to be touched by the way the long-legged, always long of leg, offspring of these species, fuelled only by mother’s milk and a little grass, struggle to find their place and keep up with the herd.

Finally I must preach. Never, unless it is obviously injured, pick up or even touch a seemingly abandoned Leveret or any feral young. For if you do you will leave your scent upon it and it’s mother may abandon it as she no longer recognises it as her own.

K. Watson

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This article was written by

Ken Watson's career as a vet started many moons ago, after he'd attended Royal Veterinary College at Camden Town. Ken came to work at Sidmouth in 1953 at Steele & Wardrop (now Ikin & Oxenham). Subsequently Ken set up his own practice at Plymouth in 1961 before retiring in 1992. His pieces graphically map out the changes that have taken place in the veterinary business over the years and also allow great insight into human behaviour.