biology zoology insects blog centipedes mother

It’s Not so Easy to be a Good Mother

But to earwigs, centipedes and leeches it comes natural to be a good mother

Nobody would deny that it is a heart-warming experience to see how mothers devote themselves to their children. But it is even more touching to witness how some of the so-called “lowly creatures” look after their young like, for example, spiders (and my blog on the Jamaica red-back spider, also known as the Black Widow, has already been written, but not yet made public), but also earwigs, centipedes and leeches; how they protect, defend, feed and clean the little ones.

My “love affair” with the earwigs and centipedes goes back to primary school days, when I developed this habit (which I still have) of turning over stones and logs to examine what might be living or hiding under them. Earwigs and also very thin, orange soil centipedes as well as the larger red garden centipedes were then frequently part of the assemblage of arthropods I could encounter. Often they were scuttling away as they found themselves robbed of their shelter, exposed to the light and the elements. But sometimes the earwings stayed put, because they had excavated a small brood chamber and deposited 20-30 eggs in it, which they would not want to abandon.

I liked the earwigs best and sometimes took one of the brood chambers with its resident adult home to observe why it would not flee when exposed. Actually, it had a duty to fulfil that was more important than to save its own life and run away. It had to make sure that there was a ”next generation” and that involved that the eggs and later the “baby earwigs” (or centipedes, because their brooding habits are similar) be regularly cleaned and vigorously defended against intruders. Devoting themselves 100% to their offspring, earwig and centipede mothers will not drink or eat for weeks on end and only concentrate on turning and inspecting their eggs from time to time, eliminating unfertilized, parasitized and diseased ones. At hatching, mothers may lend a helping foot to her creepy crawling, multi-legged brood and even allow the latter to clamber all over her hungry body. Her maternal instincts gradually wane as the young become more and more unruly and adventurous. Eventually they leave “home” and start their own independent lives.

Perhaps even more remarkable in their caring behaviour are some leeches, which like earthworms, are hermaphroditic members of the annelid phylum (in other words the “segmented worms”). In quite a few aquatic species the individual that attaches its cluster of eggs to a water plant or a stone will sit over them and regularly perform undulatory body movements to supply the developing eggs with oxygen-rich water. In species of the leech genus Helobdella, for example Helobdella stagnalis, brood care is carried to an extreme. The leech that acts the female part, will constantly carry the egg-cluster around on its body. Once then baby leeches hatch, they are real little suckers and immediately seek minute skin-papillae on the parent’s body, to which they can attach their baby sucking-mouths. Nipples on a leech? Yes, indeed!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2018.
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