Parents are our first teachers, and as we approach Mother’s Day, let’s consider that the better mothers are at teaching their children, the less those moms are needed. Our goal as moms is to make ourselves obsolete, and there’s great beauty in rearing our offspring to total independence. Many different species of animals do this by teaching their young the skills they need to make it on their own.
For behavior to be considered teaching, the mom must modify her actions around her offspring in a way that incurs some cost — or at least no benefit. Furthermore, the offspring must learn a new skill or gain knowledge that they would have acquired more slowly or not at all without this instruction.
Many of the lessons that meerkat mothers give to their pups concern what to eat and how to eat it. Scorpions are an excellent food source, but since they sting, it’s important to be cautious.
Meerkat moms begin by bringing their pups dead scorpions so that the young learn that scorpions are food. As the young grow and develop, their mothers will bring them injured scorpions, sometimes with the stinger removed. Only when pups are old enough to safely kill their own scorpions do the moms bring them intact scorpions for dinner. (Cheetah moms behave similarly, bringing dead prey to young offspring, but live prey to them once they are older.)
Meerkats must have a thing for menu items with the potential to cause damage, because they are also fond of millipedes. They are protein rich, but with a coat of toxins that can be hazardous. In order to eat them, meerkats push the millipedes in the sand and roll them around in it to remove the toxins. Pups learn this method of food preparation from their moms. Not only does a toxin-free millipede provide a lot of nourishment, it is also a source of fluid — so vital for meerkats as they drink very little water.
All moms know that in addition to nutritional wisdom, we must teach our kids about hygiene. Some macaques regularly floss their teeth, a skill that can be passed on from mothers to their young. At a Buddhist Shrine in Thailand, long-tailed macaques — also known as crab-eating macaques — pull hair from human visitors to use as floss. (These monkeys are considered divine servants, which is presumably why objections to this hair-pulling are rare.)
Moms slow down and exaggerate their flossing movements when they notice their child watching them. To investigate how these primates learn to floss, researchers put many 8-inch long pieces of hair from a wig around the shrine and videotaped mothers flossing with them. When their young were face-to-face with them, mothers spent about twice as long flossing. They also paused and repeated their actions about twice as often.
Offspring must acquire many skills to be independent, but any mom is off to an excellent start with their education if she has taught her kids how to feed themselves and the basics of dental care!