Wild families: what we can learn from nature’s best parents

7 minutes

Lessons from the animal kingdom

Starting a family is a major milestone in life, but are there lessons to be learnt from the animal kingdom?

Here are some of the most surprising and interesting examples of parenting in nature.

  • What new parents can learn from emperor penguins
  • Elephant families are all about the teamwork
  • Single mums have plenty in common with cheetahs and polar bears

Emperor penguins share responsibilities

In nature, there are astonishing families everywhere you look. Writing for LV= life insurance, Susie Kearley (@susiekearley) talks to some animal experts.

1. Emperor penguins share responsibilities

Female emperor penguins lay one egg and then go on an extended fishing trip, leaving the male to incubate the egg in his 'brood pouch'  [1].

Females might have to travel 50 miles to find open water and feed. They return with a tummy full of food, which they regurgitate when the eggs hatch, giving the chicks a nutritious meal. The male then swims off to feed, and she takes over, keeping the youngster warm in her own brood pouch.

‘Males and female Emperor penguins recognise each other by their calls and it is amazing how quickly a female can locate her mate among thousands of penguins when she comes home,’ says senior bird keeper at ZSL London Zoo (@zsllondonzoo), Suzi Hyde.

When you're starting a family, sharing childcare responsibilities lightens the load and promotes a strong relationship between parents. New parents may be able to get Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP), rather than one parent staying at home while the other works.

Elephants go around in family groups and look after each other

2. Elephants work together

Elephants go around in family groups and look after each other. The elders love spending time with their grandchildren, just like humans [2].

‘Elephant families have a matriarchal head. Herds group together to 'babysit' and protect youngsters from external dangers. The value of family structure starts from the 'mother-calf' relationship. Mother elephants are very attentive and form special bonds with their children,’ explains Mia Hadrill, communications and marketing, Elephant Parade (@elephant_parade), an organisation that raises money for elephant conservation.

‘By watching the adults, the calf learns which plants to eat and how to access them,’ adds Cath Lawson (@Cath_Lawson‏), acting chief advisor – wildlife, at the World Wide Fund for Nature (@WWF). 

3. Orangutans nurse for eight years

Orangutans nurse their babies for up to eight years, with breastfeeding from mum peaking when fruits are not available in the wild.

‘During the first two years of life, the young rely entirely on their mothers for both food and transportation,’ explains Nicola Loweth (@nicolaloweth), regional officer – India and China, at the WWF.

Orangutans nurse their babies for up to eight years

Mums teach the youngsters what to eat, and how to build a sleeping nest. After leaving their mother's care, female orangutans sometimes return to visit their mothers well into their teenage years.

Relationships between adult children and parents can be tense, but finding ways to support each other after your children have become adults has many benefits.

4. Male Clownfish take a leading role

Male clownfish are proactive parents, as shown in the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Unlike in the film, however, the fish are set free to find their own way in the world – there are no domineering parents telling them what to do  [4].

‘For males, the best way to impress the female is to care for the eggs. She'll get rid of him if she’s not satisfied, so he takes time to keep the eggs clean and protected,’ says Ty Tooze (@Tytooze), an aquarist at ZSL London Zoo.

A recent landmark study has linked ultra-clean homes to lower immunity in children, so don’t be too fastidious when it comes to cleaning

5. Galapagos sea lions look out for each other's young

Once their babies reach one week old, Galapagos sea lions club together to care for their young in nurseries. The group of females and their young are guarded by a single male who spends his time aggressively protecting his territory.

Males who aren’t attached to a group of females live in separate bachelor groups. Mother sea lions rely on each other to watch over the pups while they feed in the sea. 

Teaming up with other parents can help mums and dads find extra childcare support. Apps like Sitster help parents after a period of 2-4 weeks,’ explains David Alderton, a writer who specialises in books about the care of animals. ‘Their parents often form quite a strong pair bond through the breeding season, and a single brood can consist of up to 2,500 offspring.’

For new parents, sharing responsibility for childcare rel="noopener noreferrer" and household chores can improve a marriage.

Female cheetahs are great single mums, raising their young without help from a male

7. Cheetahs and polar bears make the best single mums

Female cheetahs are great single mums, raising their young without help from a male.

‘They move their litter, usually two to five cubs, every few days to prevent a build-up of smell that predators can track,’ says Jenny Cousins (@Dr_JCousins‏), regional manager – East Africa, at the WWF.

Eighteen months later, the cubs leave mum to make their own way in the world, initially forming a sibling group for six months.

Female polar bears have two cubs in a litter and it takes her two years to teach them survival skills. The mothers dig a den to protect the growing family from the weather and use body heat and milk to keep the cubs warm over the winter.

Female polar bears have two cubs in a litter and it takes her two years to teach them survival skills

A recent study revealed that, like cheetahs and polar bears, children who have a single mother have as strong a mother-child relationship, and develop as well, as children in two-parent families.


So what can we learn from our animal equivalents? Protection, teamwork and making use of the sharing economy to lighten the load among parents – all brilliant examples of devoted parenting from our friends in the wild.


[1] National Geographic, ABOUT THE EMPEROR PENGUIN,

[2] Elephant Voices, ELEPHANT SENSE & SOCIALITY,

[3]  Stephanie Pappas, 2017. Orangutans Nurse Their Babies For 8 Years, Live Science.

[4] Alina Bradford, 2016. Facts about clownfish., Live Science.