Spring is a time when many animals begin their mating seasons, which will be followed shortly by lots of Ducklingsbaby critters! Infancy is a very interesting period in an animal’s life. Animals have to learn how to find food, avoid predators, reproduce, and much more – all in a very short amount of time. How do they do it?

A lot of how an animal develops is affected by how it is raised. Different types of animals have different ways of raising young. Some animals are simply left to raise themselves; some are raised by their parents alone; and some are raised by an entire community of adults, including their parents. Often this affects the behavior of the baby in question when it then becomes an adult. For example, prairie voles that were licked and groomed more as pups generally lick and groom their own pups more as a result. Cichlid fish, as well, are better at defending their territories when raised by their parents or by groups of adults than if they had no adult interaction growing up.

The Role of Adults

Just like humans, baby animals often have a lot to learn from the adults in their lives. When one animal learns something from another animal, scientists call it “cultural transmission.” There are several classifications of cultural transmissions, and many types within these classifications. When a younger generation learns from an older generation, this is called “vertical cultural transmission.” This can occur between any members of either generation – they don’t have to be related. However, vertical cultural transmission often occurs between parents and offspring.

One type of vertical cultural transmission is “teaching.” It may seem obvious, but it has a list of specific requirements that differentiate it from other types of cultural transmission. The biggest requirement is that the youngster doing the learning is inexperienced in something, and the older animal doing the teaching is not directly benefiting from teaching them.

An example of teaching occurs in cheetahs, when mothers are teaching their cubs how to hunt; adults will start them off easy and then gradually increase the difficulty of their tasks for them. They generally begin by bringing dead prey and allowing their cubs to “practice” killing them; then they bring them maimed prey and allow the cubs to finish them off; then they bring their cubs hunting and run more slowly, allowing their cubs to overtake them and bring down the prey first, and so on. In this way, cubs are able to work their way up to being able to hunt on their own.

Other examples of vertical cultural transmission occur in certain finches. Males learn the song that they should sing to attract mates from their fathers, and females learn to prefer mates’ songs that are different from their father’s songs, to avoid inbreeding. A final example is in bottlenose dolphins. Calves learn to hunt from their mothers, and studies have shown that the only calves that grow up to use certain hunting techniques are calves whose mothers used those same techniques.

The Importance of Play

Besides learning various skills from their parents or other adults, baby animals also spend time playing! There are three types of playing: object play (playing with items in the environment), social play (playing with other individuals), and locomotor play (playing by some type of movement – running, jumping, etc.). It is thought that play behavior in baby animals has a number of benefits – teaching them skills necessary for life, allowing them to develop muscular and mental capacities, teaching proper social behavior, etc. However, researchers have only recently begun to study play scientifically. In some species, play can even be dangerous or deadly, but animals continue to do it, suggesting some benefit that outweighs the risks.

There are plenty of examples of object play that occur in the wild. Young ravens play with almost every new object they encounter – sticks, bottles, leaves, anything! As adults, studies have shown that they actually approach objects that they encountered as youngsters more quickly than they approach new objects. It is thought that this helps ravens identify food sources as adults, because they are familiar with a variety of food and non-food objects.

Locomotor play is often seen in some marine animals who leap out of the water. Bottlenose dolphins, for example, will often jump as a form of communication, but have also been observed doing so in a playful context. There are two hypotheses about the benefits of locomotor play – that it develops muscles and motor skills that the animal will need later in life, and that it acquaints the animal with the “lay of the land,” familiarizing them with their environment. Some researchers have even suggested that locomotor play leads to more synapses in the cerebellum, or more plainly, more connections being made in the brain, leading to an advantage later in life.

Social play is the most commonly studied type of play in animals. In bighorn sheep, young males will often engage in very aggressive play with other males – much more so than females playing with other females. Scientists think that this prepares them for aggressive competition for mates later in life. Interestingly, it is also thought that one of the reasons that bighorn sheep play less as adults is that they often bump into cactuses while playing as lambs, and perhaps interpret the pain as punishment.

There are many aspects to play in animals that people are often confused about. Many people wonder how animals know when they’re playing versus when they’re actually fighting, if they’re engaging in an aggressive type of play. Most animals have “play signals,” to alert the other partner to their desire to play. Lowland gorillas, for example, have a specific “play face” expression that they exhibit; dogs, as many companions might have noticed, will often bow or extend a paw while playing.

One of the predominant theories about social play is that it offers “self-assessment,” meaning that animals can monitor their own progress developing compared to others through play. Some adult animals will help with this by “self-handicapping” while they play with youngsters. Also known as role reversal, it occurs when the dominant individual (in this case, the older one) acts submissive or weaker so that the less dominant individual (in this case, the baby) can have experience acting dominantly for future situations. This often occurs between dogs, as well as squirrel monkeys.

So as we can see, the lives of baby animals are quite jam-packed – and yet, not so different from our own. As kids, we too have to learn from adults around us, often picking up those behaviors for ourselves (who hasn’t noticed that they are “becoming their parents” as they get older?), and of course, we play! Understanding the lives that animals lead as babies can give us new appreciation for the complexity of their adult lives, and push us further towards living in peace alongside our furry, scaly, or feathery friends. –Samantha West

Samantha is a senior Zoology major at Ohio Wesleyan University. She has loved animals and wildlife since childhood, and hopes to work in species conservation upon graduation.