|Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, not locked in mortal combat. Something must be wrong. Cretaceous interspecies adoption concept, mimicking similar behaviours seen in modern mammals and birds, by Chidumebi Browne. Prints are available here.|
The literature on animal adoption is vast, with something like 270 species of mammal and bird known to adopt juveniles of their own species (via kidnapping, accidental inheritance or other means - Riedman 1982; Avital et al. 1998). Interspecific adoption is far rarer however, and most records pertain to animals housed in zoos or wildlife park. These adoptions can work both ways: juveniles can 'recruit' surrogate parents as readily as parents adopt surrogate offspring (for instance, the bond between Owen, a young hippo, and Mzee, a century-old giant Aldabran tortoise, seems to mostly reflect efforts of the hippo). There is relatively little documentation of interspecies adoption in wild animals, however. The example everyone knows is the Kenyan lioness Kamunyak, who has become something of a sensation for her habit of adopting young oryx. She adopted at least six calves before she was last sighted in 2004, defending them from others - including predators, humans seeking to intervene, and oyrx mothers - as if they were her own cubs. At least one species of monkey, as well as wading, raptorial and passerine birds have also adopted and reared the juveniles of other species (Izar et al. 2006; Literak and Mraz 2011; Oswald et al. 2013). Brood parasitism - the offloading of parental duties to other species - clearly exploits this behaviour (Riedman 1982), and famously occurs in cuckoos, certain ducks and geese, cowbirds, fish and bees.
The significance and evolutionary purpose of these interspecific relationships remains mysterious in many cases. Of course, the internet is awash with suggestions that these species have become 'friends', typically accompanied by heavily-edited video footage showing two different species at their squeeful snugglywugilinest. If they feature predators engaging in joyful play or nurturing behaviour with usual prey species, all the better. According to those sagest of human beings - internet commenters - these examples of natural harmony show us - spiteful, war-making human beings - to be the real animals. Truly, we are awful.
In the real world, the causes of these relationships are considerably less fluffy. The fact that most interspecies adoptions develop in captivity is not surprising, likely resulting from the close quarters contact between individuals and the deficient of conspecifics. Desires for parents, mates or group behaviours in some animals may be so strong in some species that they become blinded to the clear differences between themselves and the only other individuals they know. It's difficult to know whether these examples provide good models for interspecific adoption in natural circumstances.
|Pictured: trouble in the neighbourhood.|
It is less easy to explain adoption across taxonomic and ecological boundaries so wide that even passing resemblance is unlikely. It must be said here that peer reviewed literature on these cases is hard to find, at least in my experience, so much of what is reported online is found in documentaries and news stories - not the most ideal venues for discussing complex, unusual animal behaviour (this is not a sleight against the experts featured in such outlets, just that these things are highly-edited and narrative-hungry, which often leads to embellishment and distortion of facts). As an example of how highly selective these reports can be, some stories of lions 'adopting' prey animals result from 45 minutes of observation, receiving justified scepticism from biologists. 45 minutes of coexistence does not equal a clear case of adoption, especially in species renowned for toying with easily overpowered prey.
Where these cases carry more reliability - such as the widely verified case of Kamunyak and her oryx calves - behavioural factors remain unclear. It seems unlikely that a lioness would visually confuse an oryx calf was her own, except for the possibility that her eyesight was very poor. I see explanations that possible recent, traumatic loss of her (genetic) offspring as premature on the available evidence, most likely spurred on by a desire to project human values into a simplified narrative. The fact that Kamunyak ended up eating the starved carcass of one of her adoptees, and became a serial adoptee suggests her condition might be more complex and deeper-seated than a response to one recent event. Moreover, if cub death is the catalyst for this behaviour, would it not be more common in other lions? As far as I'm aware, cub death is a pretty frequent occurrence. It also strikes me that lots of medical conditions - head trauma, brain tumours, organ malfunction leading to hormone imbalances, even certain diseases - can drastically alter animal behaviour. As far as I'm aware, no assessment of Kamunyak's health was made before she disappeared. I wonder if an illness of some kind is a more parsimonious explanation of Kamunyak's condition than complex, psychological trauma.
Let's bring all this back to Chidumebi's concept: could extinct dinosaurs have engaged in inter-species adoption, especially species as different as Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus? We certainly know that modern animals can establish these weird relationships even between animals as different as large predators and tiny prey. We also know that dinosaurs are capable of inter-species adoption, because modern birds engage in this behaviour. On these analogies, a Tyrannosaurus adopting a Triceratops is not too far fetched. We might assume that their morphological distinctions are so great that the tyrant is not misidentifying the ceratopsid for offspring of its own, and thus must be a 'behaviourally abnormal' tyrannosaur: a Cretaceous Kamunyak, if you like. The background tyrants are meant to be behaviourally 'normal', and have sighted the Triceratops calf - I expect, as is reported for many of Kamunyak's adoptions, that the Triceratops infant would not last long.
|So... is this the first picture of an obviously slightly unhinged tyrannosaur?|
- Avital, E., Jablonka, E., & Lachmann, M. (1998). Adopting adoption. Animal Behaviour, 55(6), 1451-1459.
- Glut, D. (2008). Tyrannosaurus rex: a century of celebrity. In: Larson, P. and Carpenter, K. (eds) Tyrannosaurus rex, the tyrant king. Indiana University Press. 398-427
- Izar, P., Verderane, M. P., Visalberghi, E., Ottoni, E. B., Gomes De Oliveira, M., Shirley, J., & Fragaszy, D. (2006). Cross‐genus adoption of a marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) by wild capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidinosus): case report. American Journal of Primatology, 68(7), 692-700.
- Literak I, & Mraz J. (2011). Adoptions of young Common Buzzards in White-tailed Sea Eagle nests. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123(1), 174-176.
- Oswald, S. A., Wails, C. N., Morey, B. E., & Arnold, J. M. (2013). Caspian Terns (Hydroprogne caspia) Fledge a Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) Chick: Successful Waterbird Adoption Across Taxonomic Families. Waterbirds, 36(3), 385-389.
- Riedman, M. L. (1982). The evolution of alloparental care and adoption in mammals and birds. Quarterly Review of Biology, 405-435.