Animal Students

In late summer, we start to see lots of advertisements for "back to school" clothes, backpacks, and other school supplies. Children have a lot to learn as they are growing up and school is just one place where they learn. But what about other kinds of animals, how do they learn what they need to know? What do they need to learn? Do they go to school? Let's see how we can find out.

First of all, let's see if we can figure out what baby animals have to learn. Do they need to learn to read? Do they need to learn to write or spell? How about math, do they learn to count and to do addition? You’re right, these are not skills a bear cub or a fawn or a young woodchuck needs for survival. What do they need to learn? Make a list of things you think one of these animals would need to know by the time it grows up. 

Some animals get no care from their parents. Many insects lay eggs and leave them. Their young don’t have very much to learn. They have instincts that tell them what to do. For example, a caterpillar hatches from an egg laid on a plant that has leaves it can eat. It eats and grows. It may be colored a lot like the plant it is on so that it is protected from birds eating it. This is called being camouflaged. When it is fully grown, it pupates and emerges as a butterfly or a moth depending on what kind of caterpillar it is. Then it flies off to feed on flower nectar and find a mate. A caterpillar just knows what to do by instinct. It doesn’t need to learn and it doesn’t live very long.

Most young mammals and birds get taken care of by their parents. Their parents feed them as they grow and become stronger. As they grow, they get better at running or flying so that they can get away if another animal tries to catch and eat them. Many animals practice skills they will need later on by playing. This is how they learn the skills they need.

Wildlife photographers have taken wonderful pictures of young foxes (called kits) wrestling and chasing each other in play. They act like they are sneaking up on one another. They pounce on pieces of food left for them by their parents as if they were hunting. Their play is getting them ready to use their own skills to survive. Many other kinds of animals learn by playing, especially social animals (animals that live in groups). Young caribou in herds may chase each other in play. Young bighorn sheep may practice head butting. Wolf cubs have pretend fights and chases. All these animals are building skills they will need when they get older. 

Mother mammals feed their young milk when they are babies. As they get older they are weaned and need to start eating adult food. Deer do this just by staying near their mothers and doing what the mother does, eating the same plant foods. Carnivores who eat meat depend on their parents bringing them food from animals the adults have caught. Eventually the adults bring less food and the young have to start learning how to catch their own prey. This can take a long time. If a lion cub doesn’t become a good hunter, it may not live long enough to mate and have young.

Birds feed their young too. Once the young birds leave the nest, the parents will feed them for a while. But the adults start to bring them less food so that the young birds have to find more and more of their own food. The time when they are building skills like this is very hard and many young birds do not survive their first year of life.

Scientists are not sure if adult animals try to teach their young. It is hard to find out what an animal is thinking, especially a wild animal. It is an area of science where there are many discoveries waiting to be made. Maybe you will become a scientist who finds out the answers to some of these animal behavior questions. School can be your way of getting ready to make your own exciting discoveries.

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