Even the fiercest predators – lions, tigers and bears – start their lives helpless and adorable, and even cold-blooded killers like crocodiles display surprising parenting skills. These ten creatures might look cute and cuddly but just wait until they reach their adult size!
The world's fastest animal is born weak, helpless and unable to escape even the slowest predator, which is why cheetah mothers keep their cubs well hidden during their first few weeks of life. As further protection, the soft temporary ruff of fur that baby cheetahs are born with is believed to act as a disguise, fooling predators such as lions and hyenas into thinking the cubs are (the far less appetising) honey badgers.
Having made it through their earliest weeks, cheetahs begin their real education. Skills necessary to stay alive are partly learned through play, as young cheetahs roughhouse to practise their hunting moves. Yet these play-fights can turn serious if there are food shortages, compelling cheetahs to fight their siblings for sustenance. The lucky ten percent of cheetahs that survive their perilous childhood will leave their mothers after roughly a year and a half. Sisters go out to start their own families, but brothers may remain close to each other their whole lives.
9. Brown Bears
Before giving birth, a pregnant brown bear will seek out a suitable place to make her den and settle down to hibernate. Amazingly, the baby bears are born during the mother's long sleep and, unlike the fierce grizzlies they will eventually become, start off blind, bald and toothless. The cubs suckle on their mother's milk while they remain in her den, increasing in size such that they become up to 20 times their birthweight. The mother, on the other hand, loses up to 40 percent of her bodyweight at this time, feeding her cubs but eating nothing herself until they are all able to leave the den.
Even after leaving their den, cubs remain close to their mother for the first two and a half years of life. She teaches them everything they need to know to survive on their own. This includes the kinds of food they should seek out, and how to find or catch it. During this time they are still vulnerable, and a mother bear is sometimes forced to fight off attackers such as male brown bears, which will often kill cubs not related to them. At the end of this time the mother bear leaves her cubs to fend for themselves. The young bears may remain with their siblings for a few more months before finally going off on their own.
8. Bald Eagles
Bald eagles like to provide their babies with space to grow, and before laying her eggs the female eagle (with the help of her mate) will make a nest larger than that of any other species of bird in North America. These nests are built either in tall trees or on the sides of cliffs, with easy access to large water bodies. Raising baby eagles is a two-parent job, and while the eggs are incubating, one eagle will sit in the nest while the other forages for food and nesting materials. Later, once the chicks are hatched, both mother and father will participate in bringing them food and keeping them safe from predators.
The chicks stay in the nest, having their food home-delivered for about 12 weeks until it is time (quite literally!) for them to spread their wings. But learning to fly is a hazardous time for young eagles, and many do not survive this stage. If they do, and reach sexual maturity, only then will they grow the white feathers on their heads and tails that are the hallmark of their species.
7. Red Foxes
Red foxes are a very family-oriented species. Older sisters will often stay with their parents and help raise their younger siblings. The father fox pitches in to feed and care for the baby foxes, and should anything happen to their mother while they are still small, he will take over as the prime caregiver. Newborn kits need all the help they can get as they are blind, deaf and toothless, and are not even able to regulate their own body heat for the first two to three weeks.
Baby foxes have brown fur, and it is only after a month that they develop their distinctive black streaks and white patches. Around this time they begin to explore their surroundings and eat solid food. They will continue to stay close to their parents for at least six months, learning to stalk and pounce on their prey. They may even hang around to lend a hand with the next generation of kits!
Like cheetahs, lion cubs are kept hidden for the first weeks of their life, but distinguishing them from their big cat cousins, their fathers are not absentee dads. Male lions will participate in feeding and protecting their own young, and once the cubs are old enough, they often play with them and help train them in the hunting skills they will need to survive. In fact, male cubs will sometimes bond so strongly with their fathers that they will follow them if the older lion decides to change prides. It's not only mothers and fathers that get involved either. Lion prides will synchronise their reproduction so that all the cubs are born around the same time. This means they are raised together, and when some mothers are off hunting, a pool of babysitters is available to suckle and protect the cubs left behind.
One of the main dangers cubs need to be protected from are male lions that will try to kill the offspring of their rivals. But this is not the only threat to baby lions. In times of shortage, the mother lion, normally fiercely protective, may abandon her babies to starve if there is not enough food for them. She knows that keeping her cubs alive when food is scarce will only lead to all of them perishing, whereas letting them die gives her another chance at reproducing, hopefully with happier results.
Lynxes cope with food shortages by having fewer babies to begin with. Although a mother lynx can give birth to up to six kittens, lean times will mean she may only have one. Like many other predators, lynxes are born blind and helpless, confined to the den where they are born for their first weeks. Born during summer, the kittens will spend the whole season close to the den, playing in the brushy foliage that normally surrounds it. Unlike human children, lynx kittens are allowed to play with the food their mother brings them — an important part of their training for when they need to hunt on their own.
Come winter, it is time for the kittens to venture into the wider world. They spend these cold months with their mother, learning how to stalk and catch prey. After about nine months of caring for her offspring, the mother lynx will leave, often abruptly, and her offspring are left to fend for themselves. Sometimes the young cats will stay together for a while, but eventually the siblings will spread out and go their separate ways.
4. Polar Bears
Polar bear mothers are amongst the most affectionate and protective in the animal kingdom, a devotion that begins right from birth. Before they are born, a pregnant bear will seek out a suitable place to dig her den. This can be either on land or permanent sea ice, where she burrows into deep snow drifts. Once there, she does not hibernate, but her metabolism slows in preparation for her long stay in the den — a time when she will neither eat nor drink. The baby bears, born the size of hamsters, will stay here with their mother from December or January until they emerge around March or April.
Once the young polar bears are old enough, they can begin short forays into the cold, unforgiving world outside. It takes between 12 and 15 days for them to be competent enough at walking to venture further from the den. This is when their mother takes them to the sea ice, where she will finally hunt and eat after her months of starvation. The cubs will continue to stay with her, learning to catch fish, seals and other small animals for another two years before their mother's job is done and they must fend for themselves.
An Animal Planet poll recently confirmed that the tiger, not the dog, as the world's favourite animal. Yet this popularity unfortunately hasn't stopped tigers from being on a list of the planet's most endangered animals. Tigers face a difficult fight for survival from birth. Like many other wild cats, they have to hide and protect their helpless newborns from predators and unrelated males. But the threats don't only come from outside the den.
Within every tiger cub litter is a dominant cub. Usually (but not exclusively) male, this cub is stronger, smarter and bigger than the others. A tiger mother is not above playing favourites, and it is this dominant cub that gets a bigger share of the food at feeding time. In times of scarcity, the mother may only feed one or two of the strongest cubs, allowing their weaker siblings to die. Like everything in nature, this is not done out of cruelty, but because she knows that giving two cubs a better chance of survival is better than letting them all die due to insufficient food.
It takes a pack to raise a wolf cub. The privilege of bearing cubs, however, belongs almost solely to the alpha female. This female, the mate to the alpha male, assumes leadership of the whole pack during mating season, even over the alpha male. During this time the rest of the pack care for her and her cubs, bringing them food while they are confined to their den. Non-breeding females are able to produce milk for the cubs while the entire pack keeps them safe. Should anything happen to the mother before the cubs are weaned, another female wolf will step in and take over the maternal role.
The pups, born deaf and blind, are able to identify their mother through a keen sense of smell. Living only on milk, they will grow to 30 times their birth weight within a single month. But it's dirty work being a wolf mother, and during this time she will consume all her cub's urine and feces to keep the den clean. The cubs are able to leave their den at around three months of age to begin travelling with the pack. However, it is not until they are seven or eight months that their adult teeth develop and they are able to fully participate in the hunt.
Most people think of crocodiles as little more than cold-blooded predators, so it may come as a surprise to learn that they are caring and attentive mothers. Crocodiles lay their eggs either in mounds of vegetation or holes which they then cover up and guard. When the baby crocodiles are ready to emerge they will often signal to their mother with squeaking noises. Hearing this, the mother will uncover the eggs and even gently roll them to help the young crocodiles to hatch. The babies themselves are born with tiny 'egg teeth' on their snouts to help them break their way out of their shells.
Once they have emerged, the mother crocodile will carefully lift the babies into the water for their first swim. She will then stay close to them for months until they are old enough to look after themselves, sometimes not leaving them for up to a year. Although caring for baby crocodiles is primarily the job of the mother, in captivity father crocodiles have also been observed to take part. It appears even the fiercest and most aggressive predators can be gentle and protective parents!