Allonursing (or allosuckling) is when a mother nurses young that are not her own. It is rarely seen in wild giraffes. For example, Pratt and Anderson (1979) reported that out of 860 observations of nursing attempts in Serengeti National Park, just 37 were by an unrelated calf, and just one unrelated calf was successful in getting any milk. In Katavi National Park, Saito and Idani (2018) documented only 5 of 71 allonursing attempts were successful, These two previous studies of wild giraffe allonursing concluded that this phenomenon happens when the mother appears to be unaware that the nursing calf is not her own. Thus, the authors of these studies believe the instigator of allonursing is unrelated calves stealing milk from unwitting mothers.
However, in Wild Nature Institute's recent giraffe survey, we witnessed a remarkable case of simultaneous multiple-calf allonursing. We watched an adult female approach a group of calves, and 3 of the calves immediately ran over and began suckling from her. She allowed this nursing for well over a minute! She appeared to be perfectly aware of the situation, and given that the calves rushed to her when they saw her, we suspect she has given her milk to these calves before.
Why did this happen? We have documented 82 extended nursing bouts (when a calf was observed to suckle for more than 10 seconds) during our 8 years of giraffe research in the Tarangire region, but this is the very first time we've seen more than one calf allowed to suckle - let alone 3 calves! Perhaps she lost her calf and still has milk that she is sharing with calves in her herd. Or, one of the nursing calves could be her own, but she is apparently allowing unrelated calves to also have her milk, so this does not appear to be milk theft. A concern is that her own calf may be deprived of some of the milk it needs for rapid growth. Whatever the context, this was a rare and interesting instance of simultaneous multiple-calf allonursing. Giraffes continue to surprise us!
Have you observed allonursing?
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