Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Eating like a gorilla

When I was pregnant, I was fascinated by the gestational periods of other animals (like the beluga whale at the Shedd Aquarium, who gave birth after 14.5 months!).  Now, I am even more intrigued by mammal lactation in general.  Mammals are named for the mammary glands that feed their young and allow for survival of each generation.  Our mammaries are so special, so unique, so awesome that we are named for them.  Even more than when I was pregnant, I feel like I have a great deal in common with lactating mothers of all species. Lactation is a natural phenomenon, like pregnancy, but nursing is an act of which the mother is keenly aware.  It is something we mothers do to keep our young alive.

Gorillas nurse their young for three to four years.  For the first five months of the baby gorilla's life, the mother and baby are never separated, even for a matter of seconds (Tye would still be completely attached to me, constantly; even as connected as we are, I find that hard to imagine!).  By the age of 1, the young gorilla may wander as far away from its mama as 5 meters, but it still nurses at least once an hour (and I thought Tye nursed a lot!).  By 18 to 24 months, the young gorilla wanders more frequently and nurses less frequently, about every two hours.  Until the young gorilla weans at three or four years, it sleeps in the mother's nest. 

photo from Awesome Gorillas, everwonder.com
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Gorillas reach maturity at 15 years, signaled by males leaving the natal group.  This long road to maturity makes gorillas fairly similar to humans in length of childhood.  Of course, the gorilla's maternal behaviors protect their young from threats that human infants don't face, like males from outside the group and jaguars.  But the care the mothers give provides more than just protection.  Nursing their young provides nutrition for three to four years.  If humans take at least 15 years to reach maturity, shouldn't we be nursing our young for just as long?  

In case you were wondering, beluga whales nurse their young for two years.  I wish the beluga and her calf at the Shedd were on exhibit.  I would go with Tye and watch until she nursed, perhaps even nurse together.  I'll never hear Baby Beluga again without imagining myself nursing alongside a beluga at the aquarium.

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