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How Animals Respond to Babies in Danger

Mother and Baby Deer

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study suggests that mother deer respond to the cries of not only baby deer, but also infants of other species
  • Adult female deer quickly responded to the distress calls of a variety of infants whose cries were similar in pitch to a baby deer’s cry.
  • The mother deer responded with haste rather than caution at the sound of infant cries of distress, suggesting their instinct is to save their offspring before themselves

By Dr. Becker

According to an intriguing new study,1 mama deer are so tuned into the sound of a crying infant that they may win the title of Earth Mother. You see it’s not just the cries of baby deer that mama deer responds to. She also comes running when she hears the cries of other infant mammals, including fur seals, marmots, domestic cats, bats – even humans.

Of course, we know that pet guardians respond to the cries of their animal companions. And many dogs respond to human cries as well, so there’s some evidence “motherly instincts” exist across species. But until recently, it was assumed this was a consequence of domestication.

Mother Deer Respond to the Cries of Other Animal Babies

A pair of biologists noticed that many species of mammal babies make similar sounds when distressed. The cries are simple, with few changes in pitch. So they decided to record the calls of a variety of animal infants when separated from their mother or otherwise frightened.

The researchers then took the recordings out on the Canadian prairies and played them through hidden speakers to wild mule deer in the area. They observed that adult female deer moved quickly in the direction of the recorded cries of baby deer, but also toward the cries of baby fur seals, dogs, cats, and humans. The sounds of all the infants had roughly the same pitch.

The mother deer also responded to the ultrasonic calls of baby bats when software was used to lower the pitch of the cries to match that of deer. The researchers learned that it’s definitely all about babies for the mother deer, as they did not react to the non-infant calls of birds singing or coyotes barking.

The results of the study indicate that the distress calls of babies across a range of species share certain characteristics, which is rather amazing when you consider that some of these animals are separated by tens of millions of years of evolution. The study further suggests that many mammal mamas have an instinctive response to whatever the common elements are in the cries of those infants.

Infant’s Distress Call Elicits an Immediate vs. Cautious Response

According to study author and biologist Susan Lingle of the University of Winnipeg in Canada, mother deer have evolved to respond quickly, rather than cautiously, to situations in which their babies are in danger. The calls the researchers recorded were of a life-or-death nature. “I think the advantage of securing survival for your offspring outweighs the potential for error,” says Lingle.

This study is one of the first to suggest that wild animals have an instinctive response to the calls of other species. According to Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, “They’re showing that these deer can perceive the emotional content of another animal’s separation call.”2

These study results also support the notion that certain auditory characteristics of the calls animals make are linked with certain emotions across species. This suggests that different species may experience similar emotions.