Think Nine Months Is Long? These Animal Pregnancies Are So Much Worse
Bringing a new life into the world is magical, but you know what's not? Heartburn, back pain, swollen ankles, nausea...this is starting to sound like an ad for Pepto Bismol, but no. Those are just a few of the common challenges of pregnancy — and humans aren't the only ones who have to deal with them.
Animal moms-to-be also have to cope with the difficult side of pregnancy, sometimes for a lot longer than nine months. So who has it hardest? Let's just say we're glad we're not elephants.
Alpacas, the smaller, less spitty cousins of camels and llamas, make amazing pets. Their soft, downy wool is prized for producing warm, soft yarn, but to breed alpacas is a lengthy undertaking. Alpacas are pregnant for an average of 11.5 months. Baby alpacas, known as cria, thrive when they're born in spring or early summer. For that reason, the healthiest pregnancies begin in May or June about a year in advance.
Fun fact: There are two types of alpacas. Suri alpacas produce long, silky fibers, while Huacaya alpacas have tightly coiled, shorter fleece that's better for producing yarn.
13. Sea Lions
Sea lions, the lovable pests that flourish all along the U.S. West Coast, take their sweet time to reproduce. After mating occurs, the fertilized sea lion embryo takes up to three months to implant in the uterine wall. The exact length of time is likely influenced by the season, allowing mother sea lions to automatically optimize the date of their pup's birth for the best odds of survival. Warmer weather when food is plentiful is ideal.
Following implantation, development takes about a year until the pup is born. Twins are rare and female sea lions usually give birth to one pup every year. Despite being aquatic animals, pups are always born on land and the process takes less than an hour. Each pup averages about 13 pounds. Mama and baby sea lions communicate with affectionate vocalizations for about 20 minutes after birth.
There are more than one species of zebra, but the Grévy’s zebra is the largest and has the longest pregnancy. Unlike other zebra species, female Grévy’s zebras mate with any male zebras they choose, not only a single harem stallion. They go on to have a pregnancy that ranges from 11 to 13 months, usually having just one foal at a time.
Zebra foals, like horse foals, can get up and run in under an hour after birth. Their mother keeps a watchful eye on them during the early days and foals rely exclusively on her milk for nourishment until they begin grazing a few weeks later.
The unusual looking tapir, which resembles something like a striped hog with the trunk of an elephant, is more closely related to horses and rhinos than anything else. They have a similarly lengthy gestation period, carrying their young for around 13 months. Over a year is an awfully long time to be pregnant!
Newborn tapirs look a little different from their mothers. At first, they're decked out in brownish stripes to help hide them from predators. As they grow and become more capable of hiding and evading danger on their own, the pattern fades.
Manatees, the gentle, floaty potatoes of the sea, are so round as it is that it's hard to tell by looking at them if they're pregnant. It's a good thing they're buoyant because they carry their babies for about 13 months.
Newborn manatees are around four feet long and 60-70 pounds at birth. As huge as that sounds, that's nothing compared to the 800-1,200 pounds they'll reach when fully grown. Manatee mothers are especially devoted, caring for their babies for several years until they swim off independently.
Female donkeys, more correctly known as jennies, usually have one foal a year. Some pregnancies can last up to 14 months, however, and get this: A jenny can go into heat again less than two weeks after giving birth, so she could easily have one pregnancy after another for years.
The phrase, "being an ass" seems insulting to donkeys now, because we'd be grumpy after 14 months of pregnancy too.
Giraffe pregnancies are pretty funny, but we feel bad for laughing. They can be pregnant anywhere from 13-15 months but that's not the funny part. That's rough as heck, but mama giraffe gets some payback for all her pain and suffering.
Being the tallest animal on land, childbirth comes with a unique challenge: How to give birth when you're several feet away from the ground. Mother giraffes give birth standing up, so baby giraffes have a very abrupt introduction to the world. They literally fall to the ground, which is where the embryonic sac usually bursts. Maybe it has a cushioning effect upon impact?
Camels are like the much less cute and fluffy version of alpacas. Instead of soft, snuggly fur and sweet personalities, they're stubborn, bumpy and rude. Now that we know they have a 14-15 month-long gestation period, we get it.
Interestingly, the time of year that conception occurs impacts the baby camel's birthdate. Spring conceptions lead to shorter pregnancies than winter ones. Despite the grumpiness, mother camels nurse their babies for up to two years, communicating with their babies through gentle hums.
6. Velvet Worm
So far, all the animals mentioned are large, but even tiny animals can have unusually long pregnancies.Velvet worms, a relative of both arthropods and true worms, give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. Their pregnancies last up to 15 months.
The strange looking creatures are seldom seen, but they look a little like a slug and a caterpillar mixed together. Their babies resemble mini versions of their mothers, so worm birth is basically a squishy rope giving birth to another squishy rope.
5. Sperm Whales
All whale species have long gestation periods, but the sperm whale takes the cake for the longest pregnancy among whales. Each pregnancy lasts about 15 months, sometimes a little longer. Each time, only a single calf is born and the birth process is a community event. The entire pod of sperm whales gathers around the expecting mother to protect her while she gives birth.
While many animals reproduce annually, sperm whales spend several years raising one calf before mating again. Each female sperm whale reproduces once every 4 to 20 years until she hits the age of 40, having anywhere from two calves to over a dozen. Orcas target sperm whale calves, but once they reach a certain size, they're usually too big to be preyed upon.
Among pinnipeds, the group of sea animals that includes seals and sea lions, walruses carry their babies the longest. Each walrus pregnancy lasts an average of 16 months. Seals and sea lions each have gestation periods of around a year, but walruses still have it the hardest.
The amount of time they spend in the water offsets some of the added weight, fortunately. Once their offspring is born, mama walruses are not to be trifled with. They're extremely protective of their young. If a threat appears, their first instinct is to grab their baby with their flippers and make a dive for it. Since they have babies so infrequently, keeping them safe is extra important for the species' survival.
Admittedly, while velvet worms made the cut, most animals with the longest pregnancies are large. Rhinos are no exception, with a gestation period of up to 18 months. Rhinos are gentle and patient with their babies, guarding them around the clock to defend them from lions and hyenas. Mother rhinos will also keep other rhinos in the herd away until her newborn is more self-sufficient.
Because of the rhino's lengthy gestation period, conservation efforts are challenging. All rhino species are currently on the endangered list, partly because each pregnancy is such a labor of love.
Elephants have it even tougher than rhinos, carrying their babies for up to 22 months before welcoming them into the world. For comparison, that's enough time for a human to get pregnant, give birth, celebrate their baby's first birthday and get pregnant with baby number two.
The lengthy developmental period is partly because of the elephant's tremendous size, but it also has to do with their advanced intelligence. Typically, the smarter the animal, the longer they take to develop in utero. Elephants have the biggest brain of all land animals, with three times the number of neurons as humans have. They have the reasoning level of a four-year-old human.
1. Black Alpine Salamanders
Black alpine salamanders seem to live to confuse scientists. The vast majority of amphibians lay eggs, but not the black alpine salamander. Hailing from the Alps at altitudes of a few thousand feet above sea level, these unusual critters are one of the few amphibians who bear live young. They do so in a dramatic fashion, too, giving birth to one or two fully-developed baby salamanders following a two to four year pregnancy.
Yes, you read that right. This frog-like critter carries twins for up to four years. They could go to college in that time, but they're too busy catching enough bugs to nourish their growing mini-me's. They live up to 20 years, which might seem long for an amphibian, but that means each pregnancy takes up to a fifth of their lifespan. Now that's some motherly love.