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What does It Mean When an Animal is Said to be "Altricial"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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When an animal is altricial, it means that it is born in a helpless state, reliant on its parents for support and protection until it matures. This is in opposition to a precocial animal, an animal which is capable of moving around on its own shortly after birth. Many species of birds are famously altricial, being born naked, blind, and totally helpless, while animals like ungulates tend to be precocial. Altricial animals develop differently from precocial animals, displaying markedly different traits later in life as well as in childhood.

As a general rule, altricial animals are born to parents who might have difficulty defending themselves in the late stages of pregnancy or nesting, making it imperative for the young to be born as quickly as possible. The mothers may also be incapable of providing needed nutrition to the young while they develop. In the case of birds, for example, the mother bird may not be able to build enough egg yolk for the young to develop more fully in the egg.

When an altricial animal is born, it is often blind, and it may lack the plumage or fur associated with adults of the species. Altricial animals also tend to be helpless, unable to move around like mature adults and dependent on others for support, food, shelter, and companionship. Many marsupials, for example, are born naked or blind; baby kangaroos are perhaps one of the more outstanding examples of an altricial animal, as they are born in a form which borders on embryonic. Humans are also altricial, with an extremely long period of development required before they reach maturity.

The parents must therefore have a protected area for their young, and may also have to actively work to protect the babies. Mother rats, for example, are quite ferocious when threatened, and songbirds may use a variety of tricks to distract predators in the hopes of saving their nestlings. One big advantage to being born in altricial state is that the animal's brain will continue to develop and grow for years after birth, allowing altricial animals to learn more and develop wider skill sets than their precocial counterparts.

There are various degrees along the scale when it comes to being born altricial. While some animals demonstrate extreme degrees of altricial or precocious traits, most fall somewhere in the middle. For example, chicks and ducklings are capable of moving around within a few hours of hatching, and they are born with their eyes open, but they are clearly dependent on their parents for warmth and shelter.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines an animal as altricial?

An altricial animal is one that is born in a state of helplessness, requiring significant parental care and nurturing post-birth. These animals are typically born with their eyes closed, without fur or feathers, and are unable to move around independently. This contrasts with precocial species, which are more developed and mobile shortly after birth.

Why are some animals altricial while others are precocial?

The distinction between altricial and precocial species is largely evolutionary and depends on the specific survival strategies of the species. Altricial animals, like many birds and mammals, invest heavily in postnatal care, allowing for the development of larger brains and more complex behaviors. Precocial species, on the other hand, benefit from immediate mobility to evade predators, as seen in many ground-nesting birds and ungulates.

Can you give examples of altricial animals?

Common examples of altricial animals include most species of songbirds, rodents like rats and mice, and carnivorous mammals such as dogs, cats, and bears. These animals are born in a vulnerable state and depend on their parents for warmth, protection, and nutrition until they mature enough to fend for themselves.

How does being altricial affect an animal's development?

Being altricial affects an animal's development by extending the period of growth and learning under the protection of parents. This allows for more complex brain development and social learning. According to research, altricial species often have more prolonged periods of brain growth, leading to higher cognitive abilities compared to precocial species.

What are the survival advantages of altricial young?

Altricial young benefit from the opportunity to develop in the relative safety of a nest or den, with parents providing food and protection. This strategy can lead to a lower predation rate during the earliest and most vulnerable life stages. Additionally, the extended care allows for more complex social structures and learning opportunities, which can be advantageous for survival in varied environments.

How do parental roles differ in altricial species compared to precocial species?

In altricial species, parents typically have more intensive roles, investing significant time and energy in feeding, protecting, and teaching their young. This often includes both parents in bird species or the mother in many mammalian species. In contrast, precocial species' parents may provide guidance and protection but do not need to feed or care for their young to the same extent, as the offspring are more independent from birth.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon185686 — On Jun 13, 2011

In a way, therefore, human beings are also Altricial, right? --NKD

By KoiwiGal — On May 22, 2011

Kittens and puppies are born like this. There are few more dedicated mothers than a mother cat. She has to carry her babies everywhere and they are blind and practically naked until they are older. They can't even urinate without their mother's help, which is why if you find very young, abandoned kittens, you should take them first to a vet. Looking after very young kittens is much more involved than most people think, because they are so helpless. It can be done, but you should find out how to do it first, or you might hurt the babies by mistake.

By indigomoth — On May 20, 2011

There are some kinds of frogs and spiders that will carry their babies around for a few weeks until they have developed enough to live on their own. I know the frogs, in particular, do this because they are not water frogs, and don't lay eggs in the water, so there is nowhere for the tadpoles to swim and be independent. If they didn't carry their children around until they developed legs, they would die.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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