Mothers and babies

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By Gillian Ravenscroftscience coordinator and freelance writer

Explore the different ways animals produce and care for their offspring

Finding out about how animals produce offspring slots easily into topics on life processes or animal variation and classification. Children need to be taught that reproduction is a life process common to humans and other animals, as well as how to make and use keys, identify animals and assign them to groups. Moreover, the unusual circumstances surrounding reproduction in a variety of species will appeal to children and make for some interesting discussion and sorting activities.

Animals can be broadly divided between those that produce live offspring – mammals, and those that lay eggs – amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Within these categories, of course, lies a fascinating – and seemingly endless – amount of variation, giving scope to a range of investigations that could include parental relationships and gestation and incubation periods. It is entirely possible to cover reproduction at this level without going into any detail about copulation, but do be prepared to deal with forthright questions and to check your school’s sex education policy if in doubt.

Use the A1 poster ‘Animal offspring’ as an introduction to the topic and challenge the children to find other unusual – or bizarre – reproduction strategies through their own research.

Essential facts: Mammals

  • Koalas belong to a group of pouched animals called marsupials. Some, kangaroos for example, have pouches that open upward, but koalas’ open toward their hind legs. This adaptation has arisen because, although they now live in trees, their prehistoric ancestors burrowed in the ground and a backward facing pouch meant that the young were not showered in dirt.
  • When born, the tiny koala joey crawls inside its mother’s pouch where it will drink milk and grow. After six months, it begins to venture out, returning to the pouch to sleep. Once it has grown too large, the mother transports the joey on her back. It cannot survive independently until it is about one year old.
  • Female sea otters have a gestation period of between four and five months and a pup will spend the first eight months of life with its mother. To prevent it from slipping underwater, the pup’s fur traps a large amount of air. While the mothers dive for food, pups are left bobbing about on the surface, wrapped in seaweed. Pups begin to learn how to swim when they are around four weeks old.
  • Did you know? Following 28 days of in utero development, the female duck-billed Platypus lays two eggs. After ten days of external incubation, the young hatch out and for three to four months feed on milk that seeps through pores in their mother’s skin.
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