Tuesday, June 15

The Motherhood Game

There's been an explosion of births in the troop over the past few months, which has given me an opportunity to observe the differing mothering strategies of various parents. The variance is considerable, largely due to rank, but even within the strata, the mothers exhibit unique quirks and foibles in how they care for their infants.

The upper-crust crowd, Lottie, Punzle, and Hilda in particular, appear to be very good at being mothers. Of course, their infants have the advantage of inheriting their rank from mommy, so no one is too keen on messing with the younglings. The entire social order is implicitly looking out for them.

Lottie's infant in particular is coddled way too much. That guy is almost two years old, and he's still screaming at his mom to suckle every day, and he will eventually get his way. This isn't a particularly good strategy for Lottie, but it might not matter. A female infant will inherit the mother's rank, and even if she doesn't become the strongest or smartest baboon, she'll do well because of her heritage. The only other baboons who will be likely to unseat her will be her sisters, and sibling relationships are usually quite calm. For Lottie's male offspring, it could be tougher: if coddled too much, they might not learn the aggressive tactics and techniques they'll need as adults. On the other hand, being well fed and cared for might just make them outright strong enough.

For Lottie it doesn't matter too much either way. She'll be able to keep popping 'em out, and they'll be much more likely to survive just because she is top female. Unless some fertility problem kicks in, there'll be plenty of little baboons (then big) floating around with her blood in them. Her offspring, and her genes, will be fine.

Once you get into the middle and lower classes of the troop, you can start to look at how effective the actual mothering strategies are. These females no longer have the luxury of having every other baboon in the troop wanting to snuggle and grunt to their baby. They have to keep an eye out for their infants' safety, and balance how much they coddle their infant with how much they let the tykes make their own mistakes.

Some mothers are frustratingly bad. I say frustrating for many reasons. Harley, for instance, just let's her baby do whatever it wants. It comes to her for milk, and little else. I barely ever see her with the kid anymore, which can be a problem for making observations. When there's an interaction with one of the infants, its important to be able to identify the infant, usually accomplished when the infant runs back to its mom after a few minutes. If the infant never does that, its not a lot of fun to agonize over the lost data. The "Oh there's a random infant running around without a mother? It must be Harley's" assumption only stretches so far. Harley's behavior isn't just annoying for me; there have definitely been a few times when her infant has been socked by a juvenile and left screaming, while Harley doesn't seem to notice a thing.

Diane treats her infant as a table mat. The infant clings to mommy's chest for most of the day, and when Diane finds herself a nice juicy pine cone, she stops and lays into that solid green mass of meaty fiber. I've never seen such voraciousness. Baby Di, suffers the consequences, i.e. gets covered in splinters of pine cone. At first, I thought that someone had dragged the baby through a pile of sawdust a few times. She usually remains that way for the rest of the day. At least Diane keeps her infant close to her, even if it is to the point of suffocation.

The worst is probably Naomi. Every week, her baby is sporting some concerning new head trauma. The infant is slowly losing all of the hair on its head, and developing long scratches from face to torso. We weren't sure why until we watched Naomi climbing through a barbed wire fence with her ventrally attached infant. She pretty much tired to barrel through as if she was still childless, at first ignoring the screams of the infant getting squashed against the barbed wire and just pressing ahead in vain. Finally she took a little effort and worked her infant through the barbs. Judging from the number of scratches continually inflicted in this way, its a wonder that the infant hasn't lost an eye or had a crucial vein opened up in the process. Naomi is sort of the crack mom version of a baboon. She doesn't do any drugs, but she's about as negligent and thoughtless when it comes to her kid.

These three mothers share something in common, which is that they all appear to be relatively young. Unfortunately, I don't have any historical data to say how many infants they've each given birth to. It definitely appears that over time, the mothers somehow get better at their job. How could that be?

Look back on the story of Alia and her child, and consider the implications on motherhood. Death is perhaps the most significant way in which mothers learn what works and what doesn't. If your baby croaks, then your bodies' hormones are thrown out of control, your breasts swell up to painful proportions, and life sucks for a while. That's good enough incentive to try something different the next time. The older the child gets before it dies, the easier the repercussions are on the mother. It makes sense, the longer the offspring survives, the better the a job the mother is doing.

Sometimes, it is pure bad luck that an infant dies, and no fault of the mother. Rolling snake-eyes is a bad beat, but it happens. Fortunately, baboons young and old are tough creatures, so if an infant or juvenile falls ten meters from a tree, it'll just scream and be fine. Fifteen meters and it might fracture a few bones, but it'll heal.

Each mother has to do things her own way and determine based on her position, what will be the most effective strategy for her. Its certainly easier to for some to find their niche than it is for others (Lottie, Punzle). Ultimately, its about composing your own strategy which consist of plays which work the most often, where work means "the infant doesn't end up maimed or dead."

... I've been watching too much futbol.

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