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Tuesday, April 6, 2010


There's nothing quite like a mother's love, and moms from the animal kingdom are no exception. Check out the top 10 creatures that go all out for their kids, from putting "dinner" on the table every night to even sacrificing themselves. These offspring really need to make sure they mail their Mother's Day cards in time this year!

The first mom on our list earns her spot for giving birth to the biggest babies on Earth — we're talking an average of 200 pounds here! (Can you even imagine a diaper that large?) Female elephants also deserve a prize for enduring a 22-month pregnancy. The calves are initially born blind, forcing them to rely on their trunks for navigation and discovery, but fortunately, they live in a matriarchal society. Once the baby is born, the other "ladies" in the herd all lend a hand, including grandmothers, sisters, aunts and even cousins. These full-time baby-sitters are called "Allomothers," and they help in every aspect of rearing the young calves — so in this case, it really does take a village to raise an elephant!

Never agree to an eating competition with a female koala, as she only dines on one thing: highly poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Her digestive track can tolerate this otherwise deadly treat thanks to bowels that are packed with special bacteria that detoxify the leaves. Babies — or joeys — aren't born with these superpowers (not to mention a lack of ears, eyes and fur), but Momma Koala comes to the rescue and helps them build up their tolerance by feeding them her own feces. Eesh — guess this puts a whole new spin on threatening to wash someone's mouth out with soap. Once the joeys are born, they spend about six months inside their mother's pouch feeding on milk and forming their missing parts. But this is a mom who won't lose any sleep while nurturing: the female koala gets about 22 hours of shut-eye a day — that's nearly 90 percent of her life spent snoozing!

Al Gore would be so proud — the female alligator has got to have one of the "greenest" pregnancies this side of the ozone. Her nest is a heap of rotting vegetation (the ultimate compost pile!) that produces heat so she doesn't have to sit on her eggs. Scientists use special thermometers to monitor the two-month incubation period in these nests, and the heat does more than bring these babies to fruition. If the temperature is less than 88 degrees, break out the pink, but if it tops 91, it's a boy! Once the babies are born, the mothers carry them around in their jaw for protection, assisting them to the water, where they will spend their first years eating fish, insects, snails and crustaceans. Wonder if that comes purĂ©ed?

Male polar bears are the kings of one-night stands. These Casanovas give females the cold shoulder after mating, leaving the moms-to-be to put on around 400 pounds during their pregnancy! That's a lot of "baby weight," but in this case, late-night cravings are encouraged — in fact, if the female doesn't find enough food to double her weight, her body will actually reabsorb the fetus. Sound like something from a science fiction movie? It's all too true. After she packs on the pounds, the polar bear has one of the easiest labors on record. She digs a maternity den (usually in a snowdrift), where she goes into a hibernation-like state, doesn't eat for two months and also sleeps through the baby's birth. Can you imagine? "Push!" "Zzzzzz." "One more!" "Zzzzzz." Newborns are blind and toothless, but super cute, and they generally stay by their mom's side for just two years before being sent out on their own — sort of like condensing the toddler, tween and adolescence years. A todtweenscence, perhaps? Hmm.

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to being a cheetah mom. At any given time, females usually have four to six cubs to care for, but these kids aren't born with survival instincts. It's up to mom to teach them how to hunt prey and avoid other predators, and this training can take nearly two years to sink in and stick. Once the cubs learn to fend for themselves, Mom moves on to start a new family, while her offspring left behind form a sibling or "sib" group. The boys will stay together for life, but the females will leave the group six months or so later, as they tend to be solitary and avoid each other. Ladies, ladies, ladies — can't we just all get along?

The highly intelligent orangutan is the ultimate do-it-yourself mom. She spends nearly all her life high up in the trees, where she builds a new nest every single night from branches and foliage, fashioning more than 30,000 homes in her lifetime! She also never puts her babies down, generally nursing offspring until they reach the age or 6 or 7 — that's the longest dependence of any animal on Earth. For the most part, males come around only to mate, and even the baby boys break away more quickly from their mothers than their female counterparts, who often stay longer to learn child-rearing skills. Orangutan Home Ec, anyone?

Red-knobbed hornbills live on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, where they utilize holes in trees as their nests. Their eggs are a favorite food of monitor lizards, so to combat these predators, the hornbills narrow the entryway to their nests with a very special sealant — their own feces. Now THAT should discourage any games of ding dong ditch! Momma Hornbill will stay in her hole for the entire two-month incubation period, ignoring any of her own hunger pains to her detriment (though one can imagine that the smell from her protection method would more or less kill anyone's appetite).

This a woman who is large and in charge, as the female elephant seal generally weighs in at up to 1,700 pounds! However, that's nothing compared to her male suitor, who is usually four times her size (and tends to get around town if you get the drift). Once pregnant, these moms-to-be immediately start to bulk up even more, putting on additional weight during every day of the 11-month gestation period. However, after giving birth, she'll drop about 600 pounds while nursing her cubs in less than a month — sort of like all those Hollywood celebrity moms who get their shape back in a ridiculously short period of time (though that might have something to do with personal trainers and regimented meals as well).

When it comes to having babies, the female octopus doesn't mess around — she lays over 50,000 eggs, and that's without any fertility drugs! It takes around 40 days for the eggs to develop before hatching, and the mom stays close to them the entire time, protecting them from predators while gently blowing currents of water over them to provide oxygen. But playing bodyguard to the eggs also prohibits her from hunting for herself, so what's a mom to do? Well let's see — with eight arms, surely that's more than any octopus really needs, so what's the harm in eating one? Pass the salt and pepper, please.

Sure, she may be just a small aquatic crustacean, but the female sea louse is No. 1 on our list and here's why. First, she's lured by the male into his bachelor burrow for mating where — surprise! — she discovers that she's actually in a harem with 25 other pregnant females! If that wasn't bad enough, once the babies are ready to be born, they make their way into the world by eating her from the inside out. Worst. Childbirth. Ever.

Top 10 Animal Treehuggers

No. 10 - Treehopper

Have you ever wondered what Darth Vader would look like as an insect? A treehopper is probably a pretty safe bet. The foremost part of the thorax in this group of tree-dwelling insects is a hard protuberance in the shape of a horn, spine, bulb or crescent. It gives them the appearance of wearing a helmet or suit of armor. It also gives them a great deal of protection in the forest - these structures are tough enough to puncture skin or penetrate a shoe. With mouthparts modified for sucking tree sap, these insects are perfectly arboreal, a term that means living in trees, and rarely descend to the forest floor. They are called treehoppers for their habit of hopping away when approached or threatened.

No. 9 - Green Tree Python

Like many members of the boa family the green tree python has one of the best adaptations for life in the trees: a strong prehensile tail. With it, the animal is able to remain firmly anchored to a branch while it lurks around for food on the forest floor. Its slender shape and bright green body also give it excellent coverage in the lush jungles where it makes its home in New Guinea, certain islands in Indonesia and northern Australia. If you find yourself in that area, keep a look out for the coils of the green tree python among the branches.

No. 8 - Spotted Owl

Spotted owls are formidable and stealthy predators. With their sharp eyesight and exceptional hearing, they are able to swoop down silently and under cover of darkness to grab prey with their talons. Coming in at No. 8 in our countdown, these animals are perfectly suited for living in the treetops. They prey on other arboreal species, such as squirrels and amphibians, and rather than bother to build a nest, they simply use a tree cavity or take over the abandoned nests of other birds. Like many owls, spotted owls are strictly nocturnal and are often heard but rarely seen.

No. 7 - Flying Lemur

The name "flying lemur" is misleading, since these animals are not lemurs and they are incapable of true flight. However, like most lemurs, they are very well-adapted to life in the tree canopy. They appear to have wings, but on closer inspection the "wing" is a membrane that extends outward from the body and allows them to glide for distances of up to 300 feet between trees. The amazing thing is that they lose very little altitude when they glide, making them the most capable of all gliding species. This is quite handy as they are lousy climbers, clumsily creeping along tree branches using their weak thumbless paws.

No. 6 - Spider Monkey

Spider monkeys are the aerial acrobats of the tree canopy, flying through the forest using their long arms and strong prehensile tails. These tails can hook around a tree branch and are strong enough to support a mother and her offspring. Most monkeys have no trouble dangling by their tails for long periods of time. Their bodies are also well-adapted as forest acrobats: spider monkeys are slim and their hands act as hooks that can pull a fruit-covered branch within biting distance. They occur in forests throughout South America and as far north as southern Mexico.

No. 5 - Woodpecker

Woodpeckers are the lumberjacks of the forest, diligently carving out holes in the trunks of large trees in order to reach the delicious ants or termites that may be hiding within. The largest and one of the most common in North America, the pileated woodpecker, has been known to topple large trees with its enormous excavations. Most woodpeckers have multiple adaptations to tree-top living, such as toes modified for climbing, a bill and neck strong enough for drilling into wood, and sharp spines in the tail feathers that stabilize the bird as it digs for food.

No. 4 - Tree Kangaroo

Most people don't think of kangaroos as arboreal, but the tree kangaroo is very much at home in the canopy, only occasionally venturing to the ground for food or to move to a new tree. Compared to ground-dwelling kangaroos, tree kangaroos are stout with strong claws to help them climb. Their long tails are not prehensile, but act as a counterbalance as they move along branches. Unlike other kangaroos, tree kangaroos can move each back leg independently, which gives them the agility they need to move from branch to branch.

No. 3 - Treefrog

Chances are you have seen a treefrog at some point in your life, since there are many different species and they occur in diverse habitats worldwide. With their strong limbs they are able to leap from branch to branch, while their toe discs give them the stickiness and support they need to climb vertical surfaces. Their appearance often matches their surroundings – tropical species tend to be brightly colored, while temperate species are drab – and many can change color in response to a change in their environment.

No. 2 - Koala

No. 2 in our countdown takes the prize for being the most cute and cuddly of all our tree-dwelling species, according to a small survey of preschoolers. The koala spends nearly its entire life in the stands of eucalyptus trees, where it makes its home. Each koala has its own trees and is only visited by others during mating season, though they may venture to the ground to access a new stand of trees. These animals have a highly specialized diet, eating only eucalyptus leaves, which makes them smell a bit like cough drops. Remarkably, they spend up to 18 hours of each day in an inactive state, either sleeping or resting.

No. 1 - Orangutan

As the largest and arguably most intelligent of all tree-dwelling animals, the orangutan is widely considered the king of the trees. Orangutans spend nearly all their time in the forest canopy where they feed, sleep, breed and raise their young. The females even give birth in a treetop nest, and their tiny infants cling to them as they swing through the trees in search of food. An orangutan's long arms can reach a length of 7 feet, and their powerful, hand-like feet allow them to grasp branches tightly as they swing their massive bodies from branch to branch. Their limbs are also extremely flexible and their wrist, hip and shoulder joints are capable of greater range of motion than other apes. This gives them a grace, agility and speed that are unmatched among tree-dwelling animals.