I think there are some questions that, in this life, are just destined to remain unanswered. Answers to questions like what happened to Amelia Earhart and what really goes on at Area 51 are just not available. One nagging question that puzzles me relates to the instinctual nature of animals. How do they know how to do what they need to do?
Instincts like those of the Monarch butterfly's habitual return to a tiny plot of land in Mexico for the winter and migratory birds' pinpoint navigation skills are nothing short of fascinating. No less fascinating is the instinct of a newborn.
By newborn, I mean those newborns like calves that, upon entry into the world, are raring and ready to go. In the wild, these prey animals must be able to get away from predators soon after birth if they want to survive. If it were as simple as just being able to get up and leave, it wouldn't be nearly as fascinating. There's a lot more to the miracle of this story.
We got to experience this miracle up close and personal this spring as our small goat herd had its first crop of kids. As a veterinarian, I get to deliver a lot of calves. With few exceptions, when I get called for a cow in labor, it is already established that something is amiss. Not all calves are delivered alive and when they are, I usually have somewhere else to be. Our goats afforded us the opportunity to witness the normal side of things.
Actually, the goats are pretty sneaky about the whole birthing process. We went from thinking delivery was a few days away to kids on the ground; a few pages of the story were missing. But the truly miraculous part was yet to come.
A lot of things have to happen correctly even after delivery in order to ensure a live calf, lamb, kid or whatever. First, the newborn has to take a breath. That's easy, right? Not so for a newborn. While still inside the womb, the lungs are completely collapsed. It actually takes a great deal of effort for the newborn to expand its lungs as it takes its first breath immediately after birth. The expanded lungs result in oxygen-rich blood, the likes of which the newborn's body has never before seen. This increase in oxygen causes several physiologic changes to occur in the body, from changes to the very anatomy of the heart itself to altering the structure of hemoglobin in the red blood cells.
Once the lungs are working, the newborn needs to stand. Within a half-hour or so, the newborn is up and at 'em. But they don't just get up; it's a tough process. First, they get up on their back legs then fall on their face. This is repeated several times until finally, a front leg is straightened. Then they fall on their face again.
This is again repeated several more times until the last leg is straightened and all four feet are on the ground. The newborn will stand there and wobble back and forth as if it were on a jon boat in the middle of the ocean with eight-foot seas. Finally, it garners the courage to take a step and boom — it falls on its face again. This can be painful to watch, especially to a control freak like myself. I want to help, but I know that this is nature's way of teaching. She is certainly a better teacher than I am.
Finally, the newborn gains the strength to successfully take a few steps. All during the process, mama is close by softly humming encouragement to the newborn. By humming, I mean just that. It's a very soft "moo" or "baa" sound made without ever opening her mouth.
As difficult as all of this sounds, none of it is learned behavior; it is all instinct. These instinctual behaviors are hard wired into the animal. Like a successful baseball player with good instincts for the game, the animals with good instincts will have a successful career. The instincts, however, don't end with the newborn standing; in fact they are just beginning. Next week I'll describe what happens next.