Misplaced "Maternal Instincts"?

Every once in a while the infamous "Mother of the Year" hoax appears in my inbox, the one in which it's claimed that a mother tiger who had lost he cubs instead took in some piglets as substitute children. While the truth behind the photographs is awfully sad, it seems credible because sometimes animals do look after babies that don't belong to their own species, and today one of the other great bloggers on this site, GrrlScientist, shared the following video of a crow (among the most intelligent of birds) caring for an orphaned kitten (here's a shorter version, minus Alan Thicke);

This isn't the only time such a strange pair has been filmed, however. Some readers from my old blog will remember a brief mention of the following video clip in which a juvenile female Leopard watches over an infant baboon whose mother had just been killed by the leopard (although the cat doesn't quite seem like it knows what to do and the baby dies of exposure during the night).

Even more surprising was the case of an immature female lion that "adopted" an Oryx calf, preventing the calf from leaving but being unable to provide for it. The Oryx calf was becoming malnourished and the young lioness could not hunt, although ultimately the calf was killed by a male from a nearby (unrelated) pride. Even more bizarre was the fact that the young lioness ultimately took in five more Oryx calves for relatively shorter periods, some dying and some making it back to their mothers, but for whatever reason this particular lion repeatedly tried to take in the young ungulates. Why she was doing this is a mystery, although it was probably caused by her losing her pride at a young age (three other prides surrounded her area, but they were not related to her).

If memory serves, I also remember seeing footage of an adult female lion coming across an abandoned leopard cub, and although it appeared that the lion wanted to care for the infant she ultimately abandoned it as well, the infant quickly being killed by hyenas in the area. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the predators were not under so much stress (it was a particularly dry year when this occurred), but I would imagine that this will not be the last time that such an event occurs. The problem with such accounts, however, is that they are anecdotal and as far as I know have not been scientifically studied. For that matter (and keep in mind this is largely my own ignorance, I could be wrong and if I am please correct me) I'm not aware of any work on why some animals "adopt" members of other species, especially individuals that do so over and over again. I'm sure some of you are aware of other instances of this, and I hope that if it hasn't already been researched that someone will have the motivation to do so; these observations don't seem to fit into the way we think that nature works, but it seems to happen often enough that I think some explanation should be attempted.


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The maternal instinct is incredibly strong, and I'm never too surprised when I see a story at a zoo or from a Nature show that shows one kind of animal taking care of another one. Of course, these pairings never really work out. I also think it's interesting when a mother's baby dies, and that mother tries to "kidnap" another baby. This happens with disturbing frequency among our own species, but also among penguins, lions, seals, and birds (and probably more--those are just the ones I've read about).

Funny coincidence, Greg Laden just linked to this.

Zach - exactly. I don't think this is really that much of a mystery- considering how many animals are engaged in "normal" maternal care every moment, we might expect to see a few strange cases from time to time. Although if you call these cases "misplaced maternal instincts", Frans de Waal gets annoyed :)

Windy; Thanks for the link. What I find interesting, though, is that in many cases the animals that seem to "adopt" a member of another species is an immature animal. Such individuals haven't yet had their own offspring or engaged in maternal care, and that's what I find most perplexing.

Zach; Interesting point about mothers trying to "kidnap" other babies, but what I find even more interesting are mothers that kill infants. In the documentary Relentless Enemies it's revealed that the cubs that keep going missing in one pride of lions are being killed by one of the female lions in the pride, and Jane Goodall observed a chimpanzee mother & daughter pair (Passion and Pom, if I remember correctly) that stole, killed, and consumed at least 5 infant chimpanzees at Gombe. When Passion died, though, Pom apparently stopped the behavior (probably because her partner died and she couldn't do it alone). Infanticide is well known among males, but I must admit that why adult females should kill the offspring of other females is a bit of a mystery to me.

Infanticide is well known among males, but I must admit that why adult females should kill the offspring of other females is a bit of a mystery to me.

Because... females don't compete? :)

Windy; I'm not sure about infanticide by females is the result of competition. What would the competition be for? The behavior seems rare (dare I say aberrant in the case of Passion and Pom), not a regular part of the behavior like in male langurs, for instance. Indeed, in the case male langurs the infants are killed to start the mothers cycling again (consequently erasing the infants of the previous male, although the juveniles are not killed), but this doesn't translate to why adult females might kill infants, especially in animals that are gregarious. If it's competition, what sort of competition is it (and what are the females actually thinking or reacting to that makes them kill the infants)?

Melinda; Thank you for the paper! I'll have to have a look at it and will blog about it if I can tie a few other references in with it.

I guess this would come under a similar category, empathic vocalization:


"the problem with such accounts, however, is that they are anecdotal..."
...and incredibly anthropomorphized. would good crow parents nab their dependents' food? it looks more like the crow and kitten have learned to tolerate each other. parental behavior, not form a parental-type bond.

interesting post, brings up a lot of questions/issues. i gotta say, though, what's actually contributing to these "partnerships" is doubtfully "parental" in nature...

Good points, Kate. It's interesting that many of the cases I've seen involve juvenile animals, perhaps having more to do with "play" than "parenting" of any kind.