When we were young, we spent two months every year with my mother’s parents on a huge farm in a village near Bhopal. We slept in mosquito netted beds in the garden, we shelled peas, roasted green channas, and played pittoo and all sorts of indoor games with shells and seeds. We were fed relentlessly. Did I ever sit down and ask my grandmother things about herself? Not that I can remember. I called her Dujama and learnt her name twenty years later! I was far too much in awe of my grandfather to even talk to him.
My granddaughter is shy. Once she loosens up she tells me all about her world. But she, like I did with my grandmother, expressed no interest in who I am or what I am interested in. I am her Dadi and that is enough for her. Will my granddaughter remember me when I am gone? She is small now but I shall try to pass on to her as much as I know about my family and the world around us and perhaps how to survive it.
Are we the only grandparents? Do any animals know their grandparents the way humans do? For most species the answer is ‘no’. Insects spread out immediately and the ones that are in community housing – like ants and bees - are brought up communally in nurseries by feeders and caretakers. In 2010, researchers reported, in ‘Current Biology’ that in gall-forming aphid colonies, older females defend their relatives after they have ceased to reproduce.
Most birds do not recognise their family members after their first year. There are exceptions to this, especially among social birds such as cranes, crows, and jays. A 2007 study in the journal ‘Evolution’, found that older female Seychelles warblers help their offspring raise chicks. Canada Geese also remember their parents, and may even rejoin their parents and siblings during winter and on migration. There is cooperative breeding and caring about 200 species of birds. But that does not necessarily include grandmothers.
In some cases, the life of the wild mammal is so short that the grandparents are dead before the grandchild is of an age to know them. In some cases, the children spread out so that they do not compete for resources – male tigers, for instance – so the chances of running into a grandparent are slim. In many species, the mother and grandmother fight each other for resources, if they are in the same area.
But there are so many that live in sociable close-knit groups. Humans, whales, and dolphins have evolved to live well beyond child-bearing age because this helps to raise the survival chances of their descendants and argues a new theory of ageing in social animals. Dr. Ronald Lee of the University of California, in the journal ‘Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences’, says “In some species, post-reproductive females make substantial contributions to their descendants, either through direct parental care or through grandparental care. Post-reproductive bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales babysit, guard, and even breastfeed their grandchildren”.
Many whale species travel in family pods that include both grandmothers and grandcalves. Orcas and short-finned pilot whales, belugas and narwhals, go through menopause. Once they stop reproducing, grandmothers stop competing with their daughters for mating opportunities. This enables them to live in and play an important role in social pods where all the male and female offspring stay together.
Studies show that adult orca sons are more likely to survive with their mothers around. Orca grandmothers often lead their pods and can live for decades after they stop reproducing. Scientists, writing in ‘Current Biology’ say that the elders are important because they help the pod survive by remembering the best places to find food and share fish with their grand-calves. In groups of sperm whales old females help in babysitting the group's young oneswhile their mothers dive for food.
Great apes appear to be aware of their grandchildren and have even been known to foster grandchildren if the parent is dead or ineffective (just like humans).
Rhesuses and Langurs live with their daughters and grandchildren in loving relationships and the grandmother is the boss. The grandmothers are in charge of defending the group’s children against assaults from humans, dogs and other monkeys. Within the group, grandmothers give their own grandchildren special treatment, grooming them and disciplining them if they step out of line.
Elephants often live in large families made up of babies, juveniles, and mothers. Elephant herds are usually led by the grandmothers who collaborate with their daughters to raise the young. In a study, in ‘Scientific Reports’, scientists found that the calves of young mothers were eight times more likely to survive if their grandmothers lived near them than if they did not. The experienced matriarch was more likely to offer solutions in life threatening situations than the inexperienced mother. Grandmothers led the family to the right places to forage or drink or when interacting with other elephant families. According to a study among of 834 individual elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park over a period of 40 years, researchers say “The new and exciting part of our study is the strong effect females have on the reproduction of daughters and granddaughters in their family. Daughters of long-lived mothers lived longer themselves and had higher reproductive rates.”
Feral cat colonies, according to cat behaviour experts at the University of Bristol, are “based around multi-generational cooperation between females—grandmother, her daughters, and their kittens.” Male cats are not involved in raising young.
Do dog grandparents acknowledge their granddaughters/sons, or do they just treat them as random dogs? It depends on the “bonding” period they have when they are born. If they get a few months together they will recognise each other. If the grandparents of the pups are around, when they are puppies, they might possible be able to recognise them if given this same bonding opportunity. Although adult dogs can recognise close relatives that ability depends on what happened to the dog as a puppy.
Their genetic ancestors, the wolves, still move in family packs in which the parents hold the highest status and are the pack leaders. A family of wolves can be large and extended, including aunts and uncles, siblings, grandparents, and even adoptees. The basic form of a wolf pack consists of a bonded pair, known as the breeding pair or alphas. These are the leaders of the family and their bond can last a lifetime. The alpha pair is nearly always the parents or grandparents of the other pack members, until they become too old to continue as leaders, in which case, if they have been benign leaders, their descendants will look after them. If they were bullies as alphas they will be driven out.
According to Lee’s theory of ageing, if a species makes no post-birth investment in raising its offspring, then the species depends entirely on fertility, not on a long life, e.g. Butterflies lay many eggs, and then die. But in species where parents have few offspring and invest time and energy into promoting their children’s survival, natural selection would logically favour a longer lifespan. So, if grandparents help their children succeed as parents this will favour living even longer. Anthropologists have found clear evidence that older women have a beneficial effect on grandchildren in traditional societies.
My granddaughter needs me and her Nani just as I needed mine.