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Extended Families

The ecological term is extended parental care conditions that lead human and animal parents to offer their grown offspring extended parental care are remarkably similar across species. Dangerous environments, food shortages, competition for territory, and pressure to find mates keep young adults living at home.

If boomerang kids were birds being observed by ornithologists instead of humans being critiqued by social scientists, a supportive parent-offspring relationship might be called the more bird-specific “post-fledging care.” And maybe instead of bemoaning it, critics would recognize, as biologists do, that it can improve the future success and survival of offspring.

Some animals live in large groups. These animals are often related to one another. They may share parenting duties among all members of the herd.

The furry, adorable animals that typically come to mind are mammals. Mammals have fur, mammary glands, and birth live young. They typically have a few offspring and spend more time caring for them compared to other animals. The fewer offspring a species has and the longer the gestation period or the time they need to carry their young to term, the more parental time is invested.

In elephants, it is very common to see the whole herd involved in parental care of the young. Elephants herds are often formed of a group of related females. In these cases, kin selection may be at work.

Kin selection means that the genetic fitness benefit is drawn from the survival of related animals that carry some of the same genes. In these cases, the other members of the herd may still reproduce, unlike the case of social insects where only the queen reproduces.

Some species, such as the cuckoo bird, will lay their eggs in the nest of another species of bird. The victim then raises the unrelated offspring themselves.

Parasitic Parenting

Parenting isn’t just limited to parent and child for some species. Meerkats are social creatures, similar to prairie dogs, living in southern Africa. In this society, one alpha male and female do most of the breeding. Yet, these parents have to go out foraging during the day, much like humans go to work.

The parent meerkats leave their offspring with ‘babysitters’ back in the burrow. The babysitters watch the offspring, and other members of their group bring back snacks for the youngsters until they are old enough to forage with the group.

For a low-ranking female meerkat, the best strategy for getting her own territory is to stay close to home and wait for Mom to go. This strategy is also seen in chimpanzees, although males tend to be the siblings to inherit. Western bluebird sons who stay home over winter with at least one parent not only are more likely to survive the season, but they also tend to inherit some of their parents’ territory come spring. The territory often comes with what Cornell scientists call “mistletoe wealth,” stocks of the plant that serve as shelter and food for these birds.

Some catfish take it a step further and eat all the eggs in a cichlid nest and then fill it with their own eggs. Not only does the cichlid end up investing resources in raising another animal`s young, but it also ends up losing all of its own offspring.

Parenting strategies in nature. The one that will optimize an animal`s likelihood of reproductive success finds a way in the following approach.

  • Life span
  • Number of reproductive opportunities over a lifetime
  • Survival Rates of Young
  • Stability of Environments

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