As you are reading this, the shutdown in Bangladesh is continuing its unbroken streak. Covid-19 has barred all field activities for the past two months. The TBS Earth team members have drawn upon their memories and lessons from mighty nature. We hope to provide fresh stories from the wilderness and are crossing our fingers for normal days— today, we will understand a new term: new normal. This is how our restricted lives can be inspired by several mega-animals that, for ages, have lived, bred, raised their young, and thrived this way– in measured solitude and isolation.
Today, we talk about mammals—the class we, humans, belong to. We will look into the whys and hows of certain extremes of their solitary behaviour. We will see that isolation and distance might not necessarily mean a bleak outcome but rather the successful survival of our progeny.
An adept strategy
Before referring to extremes or the extraordinary, you may be surprised to know that all mammals do experience solitary phases at some points in their lives. A tigress, during gestation, goes into hiding near the time of birth – as do all felids. Even the most social of mammals become exceptionally wary, secretive and maintain a safe distance from others at times. Seclusion is mostly related to successful breeding and parenting.
Why is this? Because, mammals are the most modern group of animals. And, they prefer quantity over quality. Their number of offspring stay almost always limited and set. They are bound to be the most careful about ensuring the life of the future. Recklessness might mean the end of the species. So, the solution comes in secrecy. In other words, they do this happily and instinctively. So, don't be so hesitant and impatient about life during the shutdown. It still sounds temporary for us but it is habitual for them. And, some have set breathtaking records.
In frozen realms
Name a place remote and isolated – the first that will likely hit your thoughts is the poles. Now, speaking about life on the poles, frigid ice worlds never offer an easy option. Life is destined to be distant here. The most exceptional is perhaps the life of the polar bear from the North Pole. After a brief mating period, the pair parts ways. An expectant mother bear starts building a den and stays there for more than four months – continuously. She dens herself in for most of the gestation phase and depends solely on her body-fat. Until the newborn cub is strong enough to venture into the open, the act goes on. Imagine a life confined in a two square meter chamber and several times throughout one's life. It will give you some respite.
Yes, you might have guessed it right. In the depthless blues, examples are set by giants. Let's consider a few. First, gigantic whales. They traverse from pole to pole, always in small numbers; often, alone. Go deeper, just after 200m, and lights begin fading to darkness. Against the odds, life continues to flourish. You will be amazed in knowing that whales can dive down into the complete abyss. A sperm whale, in a single breath, can go straight down, two kilometres deep, alone. You see, the extreme pressures of water, salinity and abyss cannot stop whales. We are far more adaptive than them, aren't we?
Alone in jungles
When we think of jungles and forests, tropical or temperate, a sequestered way of life might not be prominent in our minds. Deep in the green, life buzzes and bustles around. But, look closely. You can sense secrecy and safe distance here also.
For, in the vibrant jungle, life is competitive. And, the best way to avoid competition is to avoid contact. The master of singular lifestyle is the orangutan of the Indonesian archipelago. This big, rusty-brown ape is one of our closest kinds and the sole of the group that lives singly. An orangutan prefers to live alone. Even, the mating season and sexual development come late. Similar to that of a bear, after a short mating period, the pair separates. The mother orangutan does the rest, in solitude from the canopy to forest floor. Born as a singleton, the baby stays clinging to its mother for nearly four years before starting off on its own, repeating the cycle.
Life in deserts
Another deserted place is simply the desert. Life is no less tough here either. But, the mammals, from the Taklamakan to the Sahara and the Atakama, have mastered their way out. One such species is the sand cat. This domestic cat-size feline lives in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. This cat is extremely secretive, avoids contact and prefers denning. Its principal mode of communication is stints of spray and signs of spoor. A single individual can roam an area of 16 square kilometres – discovered by a study in Israel. Not a very social life for a miniscule cat species. Hold on to your isolation periods. Life will find a way.
High in the mountains
Go to the Himalayas as two more cats are there to inspire you. One is the famed snow leopard. Although the smallest of the big cats, it can live high at 4,500 metre elevation. Like the sand cat, snow leopards keep in contact via urine stains and scratch marks. For any life that high, food is mere luck. When prey is not scarce, according to a study in Nepal, a 1,000 square kilometre-strong area can hold only five of them.
The second feline to surprise you is the Pallas's cat. Slightly bigger than an overgrown house cat, it is undoubtedly the most solitary of all. One of these Himalayan residents takes up an area 100 square kilometres – isolation and secrecy at its best combination.
For the prowling fathers
You see, in two instances – with bears and orangutans – mothers stay triumphant. Out of 5,000 different mammals, males of only a mere five percent of species take an active part in childcare. But, is that all? Mammalian males might not do anything actively. Yet, they spend their life on the move, literally. Social or solitary, a male of any mammal has to chalk-out certain mandates: Finding mates, protecting her and the babies, defending the suitable ground – always on the run, stressed, with the least amount of interaction. It is no surprise knowing that males in the wild are often short-lived. Say, for feral cats, if domesticated, they can live for up to 12 years; if not, their average longevity rarely goes beyond four years.
So, fear not, my friends. Upon reaching here, you of faintest faith should sense a sailing wind. Isolation, distancing and all other new normal cannot and will not stop humanity. If the wildlings can thrive against the odds, we will overtake the Covid-19 as well. Even if the virus stays active for eternity, we, the humans, will make our way out. Always respect, learn from and be inspired by nature.