The 9 Worst Moms in the Animal Kingdom

No matter how many mistakes your mother may have made, there’s no way she's in the same class as these animal mothers.

1. Harp Seals

Mothers of these precious little ones are highly dedicated for the first twelve days. In fact, they do not eat at all during that period. Unfortunately, once the feeding is over, that’s it for mother-child bonding—she’s out of there, ready to mate again.

Unlike many other species with such abrupt weaning periods, the harp seal pup can’t go on to survive on its own yet. Instead it is left stranded on the ice for the next month and a half, leaving it incredibly vulnerable to predators. The babies will lose half of their body weight during this lengthy fasting period. Finally, when they are about eight weeks old, they are ready to swim and are able to start hunting for their own food. With a childhood like this, it’s no wonder that at least 30% of all pups die during their first year.

Image courtesy of Luke Bryant's Flickr stream.

2. Cuckoos

Perhaps the most famous bad mother on this list, the cuckoo tricks other birds into raising her own youngster,

freeing her up to enjoy life as a single bird. She does this by laying her eggs in the nest of another bird. Unfortunately for her victims, the cuckoo chick is hardly a grateful adoptee. Instead, the chick hatches earlier and grows faster than the other bird’s real brood, forcing the smaller chicks out of the nest to die.

Image courtesy of Per Harald Olsen.

3. House Sparrows

While most women would be furious if their husband cheated on them, few would choose to take it out on any offspring that resulted from the infidelity. But that’s just what the house sparrow does — she seeks out nests of other females that mated with her partner and kills the resulting chicks. This way, her baby’s daddy will spend his time fathering her own youngsters. Just imagine finding out your mom killed your half-brother so your dad would spend more time with you.

Image courtesy of gingiber's Flickr stream.

4. Pandas

I know, it’s hard to think anything negative about these adorably cuddly critters, but the reality is that they’re pretty negligent parents. In fact, despite the fact that pandas often have twins, they almost never care for more than one cub. The mom will choose the weaker of the two babies and start ignoring him or her in favor of the stronger sibling.

To be fair, it’s not entirely her fault; bamboo is notoriously low in nutrients, so it’s near impossible for a mother to make enough milk to feed two cubs. Even so, it’s a harsh decision for a mother to make. At least the cubs abandoned in zoos are still cared for since zookeepers don't have to worry about limited milk production like the cub's natural mothers do.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia user colegota.

5. Black Bears

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the black bear generally has two or three cubs at a time. Unfortunately, when she only has one cub, the mother will often abandon it, deciding that raising only one baby just isn’t worth her effort.

6. Black Eagles

Any mother with more than one child can tell you just how irritating sibling squabbles are, but most parents know when to say enough is enough and to break it up. When it comes to black eagles though, mom often just watches the fight, even when the older, stronger chick ends up killing the younger sibling.

Image courtesy of Qihui Hanabi's Flickr stream.

7. Rabbits

If you ever thought your mom didn’t have enough time for you when you were young, just be glad you weren’t born a bunny. Rabbit mothers immediately leave the burrow after giving birth and only stop by for a few minutes each day afterwards in order to feed the litter. After less than a month, the youngsters are left to fend for themselves. In the rabbit’s defense, she’s actually helping her babies by minimizing the chance the burrow will be found by predators.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Rklawton.

8. Burying Beetles

Burying beetles are big believers in the idea that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The larvae live in a mouse carcass and get fed as mom consumes the dead creature and regurgitates the meat to her kids. Unfortunately, there’s not enough mouse meat for everyone, so the ones that get mom’s attention get fed first…the rest get eaten by their own mother.

Image courtesy of gailhampshire's Flickr.

9. Skinks

What’s a protective lizard mother to do when there are too many predators around her egg clutch? Well, if you’re a skink, you say, “better luck next time,” and eat the eggs before they get a chance to hatch. I guess it’s better that your parenting efforts benefit your species rather than your predators, but it’s still a little weird to dive into cannibalism without even giving your babies a chance at life.

Image courtesy of ecotist's Flickr stream.
* * *
With these traumatic childhoods in mind, suddenly your own mother’s mistakes seem a lot smaller, don’t they? Well then, Happy Mother’s Day!

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Animals
Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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