Animals Are Teenagers, Too

Illustration by Sam Woolley
Illustration by Sam Woolley

Animals, they’re just like us: they breathe, they eat, they like rubbing their genitals on things, they look cool in sunglasses, they die. But sometimes before that, they go through a period of adolescence that has a few things in common with what we associate with human adolescence. Aside from the sexual activity and procreative capability that puberty brings, some take risks outrageous enough to suggest they’re just as susceptible to believing in their own immortality as human teens are. A BBC Future article from 2012, “Why animals also seek teenage kicks,” describes adolescent male otters who play in shark-infested, rock-pierced, current-hijacked waters, and young gazelles who chase animals known to prey on them like lions and cheetahs. That’s wild even for wild animals.


But what about adolescent animals that make good decisions? And what about long-living animals whose development coincides with ours so that their adolescence occurs in their actual teen years? What about animals like parrots who mature early and then sit around for decades as crabby elders? What about the parrots???

These questions guided my inquiry into the teenage behavior of orcas, elephants, chimpanzees, Galapagos tortoises, and parrots. I talked to some experts and did some reading on these creatures to find out what teenagehood looks like in them. The results of my findings are below.


Reach sexual maturity: As young as 6

Lifespan*: Males around 50-60 years; females up to 100 years

Per a phone conversation I had with Dr. Deborah Giles, research director/project manager at the Center for Whale Research, who observes the behavior of southern resident killer whales (the most-studied orca population in the world) in the Pacific Northwest:

Physically versus culturally, the ability to get pregnant is different. Females, generally speaking, in the wild, will have their first calf when they’re basically 13, 14. What we end up seeing is as females are becoming culturally mature and getting close to the time when they will have a calf, they start spending time with moms with calves. And they start spending time with calves, so it’s not uncommon to see a young female killer whale who has not had a calf of her own in her teenage years babysitting calves, maybe even several at a time. Moms will go off and forage, socialize on their own and leave the calves with these young, maturing females. Maybe they are pregnant already and they’re maternally drawn to these calfs. It’s a little hard to tell just yet. We need to get the fecal matter from those individuals to say they’re pregnant and it can take up to a year to analyze that data.

I think it’s one of two things [that causes a delay between sexual maturity in females and their actual bearing of calves]: Social pressure by dominant females to repress the younger females from having calfs, especially in a time of low food. It could also be they are getting pregnant but losing them because they’re not getting nutrition consistently enough to hold the calf. 60 percent of pregnancies are lost to miscarriages

It’s often the case that teen males will end up babysitting. It’s less interactive. The calves ambush the young males. You imagine these are the young males that want to be hanging out with the bigger bulls but they’re not quite there yet, so moms will be like, “Hey, there’s Junior, let’s dump the kids off with him for a couple of hours.” You see groups of young males that group up and spend a lot of time together. They forage together, they travel together, they socialize together. I always imagine the Southern Residents as being this community of extended cousins where it’s a natural thing to kind of group up with your age cohort.

Males are sexually active quite early. They sword fight with each other—penises out, rolling around with each other. We call it sword-fighting because that’s exactly what it looks like. They start doing that very young—5, 6. The sword-fighting occurs with whales of all ages, with other whales of all ages. It may serve to displace aggression, assert dominance, or it might just be fun. The prolific males that are actually siring offspring are the biggest and oldest animals. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s and as old as 50. Last year was the first time we saw male-on-male penetration. I’m sure that it’s been happening, it’s just never been documented. We also see males having sex with old females that are clearly post-reproductive. The males are just really…sexual animals. All of the whales are really tactile animals anyway. They’ve got this massive wide open ocean to be swimming in and you’ve got sometimes the whole pod on top of each other swimming and playing and rolling around and breaching and tail-slapping. Even if it’s not sexual, they’re very tactile animals. Killer whales, at least this population, are the bonobos of the cetacean world.

Young males who are just starting their teen years, train after the bulls, wanting to be part of that part of the pod. It’s not like the older males don’t welcome them, but it’s like what you would expect. They’re testing the boundaries and pushing outside of being directly linked to mom’s side, which they had been up until that point, certainly within a couple hundred meters of mom. And then as they get older, they branch out a little bit throughout the day, but they always come back to mom. Both males and females of this ecotype stay with mom her entire life until she dies.

Wild killer whales learn so much of what it means to be a member of a community during those young calf and teen years. It’s awesome to see in the wild.

African Elephants

Reach sexual maturity: Around ages 10 to 12

Lifespan: Up to 70 years

According to conservationist Carl Safina’s lovely 2015 book on animal communication, Beyond Words, “the timeline of their lives mirrors ours”:

In motherhood as in matriarchs, experience carries consequences. “Females can breed when they’re thirteen,” [the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Vicki Fishlock observes], “but a teenage mother is more likely to get into difficulties than a twenty-year-old.” Young mothers might go into cold water that chills the baby. They may take their offspring over terrain they can’t handle. They might simply not know how to be a mother. When seventeen-year-old Tallulah had her first baby, she acted upset, confused, and generally inept. She didn’t have the experience to direct the baby to her nipples and then stand quietly with her leg forward to lower the breast so the little one could suckle. When it almost latched its mouth onto a nipple, it promptly got bumped in the nose and knocked over. Then Tallulah did not know how to pry the youngster up. Eventually, she did figure out what to do. By contrast, Deborah, approximately forty-seven years old and having given birth several times, was relaxed and competent from the moment her newest baby was born. The baby fell down five times in the first half hour, but Deborah carefully got it up by gently putting a foot under it and steadying it with her trunk. In an hour and a half it found Deborah’s nipples and sucked vigorously for over two minutes, while Deborah stood quietly with her leg well forward so her newborn could nurse. Vicki emphasizes this point: “The older ones are fantastic mothers. They’re super chill, and they often have loads of helpers by that age.”


And as for the guys:

Vicki explains, “Males are usually playful and very sweet with each other, actually. They’re not really competitors. Unless there’s an estrus female around, there’s nothing to contest. Males of fifteen or twenty are interested in females, but there isn’t much competition between a twenty-year-old male and a fifty-year-old male weighing double.” Musth males are bossy and aggressive, with quadrupled testosterone levels. And because females greatly prefer musth males, that pretty much precludes flirting from young males. Younger males must wait until they are at least thirty years old before their first musth and their first real sexual experience.


And then there’s this adorable anecdote:

Meanwhile, Duke, around fourteen years old, comes to within fifteen feet of me with his trunk extended, sniffing the new human. Just for show, he objects mildly, turning away and then wheeling and sweeping his head up, slapping ears against body and facing us with ears out, then shaking his head haughtily and swinging his trunk impressively. Looking at me with his brown eyes, confronting us so closely with his creased and wrinkled nose hose and the living leather of his fanning ears, he appears magnificent in every detail and—as far as threatening—not at all convincing. He could, of course, crush us but has no such intention; he’s just showing off in a teenage male way. That comes across. He’s showing that he’s big enough to be taken seriously. But he’s not terribly confident and is trying out his role. He’s confident enough in us to be focusing some attention on us, yet he isn’t threatened by us, isn’t really agitated, isn’t frightened, doesn’t intend to harm us. I know what he’s doing.



Reach sexual maturity: As early as 9 for males, 10 for females

Lifespan: 40-45 years

Via email, Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who studies primate behavior, learning, development and health and is assistant professor of psychology and a member of the Biological Foundations of Behavior Program at Franklin and Marshall College, told me:

Adolescent chimpanzees do show some analogous behaviors to teenagers. Essentially, both males and females start to change from very playful youngsters who stick close to their mom and family unit, to more independent individuals, who start to integrate socially into the adult community. For females, this usually means leaving the community they were born into and integrating into a neighboring community (essentially ‘leaving home’), while males stay in the community they were born into. The male integration includes starting to perform aggressive dominance displays and working their way into the male dominance hierarchy, which certainly has echoes of teenage behavior. Adolescent chimps also have a growth spurt like teenagers.


Galapagos tortoises

Reach sexual maturity: Around 20-25, sometimes as late as 40

Lifespan: 100+ years

Dr. Stephen Blake of the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the department of biology at Saint Louis University, via a spotty phone connection from the Galapagos Islands, told me:

The short answer is we know very little, but we have reason to speculate. The “teenage years” are a good description of the adolescent years of Galapagos tortoises, because these animals mature at a similar age to humans although they don’t start reproducing till their 20s. A question that I find most fascinating about the growing-up years of giant tortoises is how they know when and how to begin long distance migrations from the humid lowlands where they hatched into humid highlands. Unlike many adults, infant, juvenile and young sub-adult tortoises don’t migrate. They appear to live on their own, but we don’t know if there is more complex social organizing going on, because no one has yet studied it. At some point in their life history, among migrating populations, Galapagos tortoises somehow come to make the decision of, “When should I migrate, and where should I migrate and how should I do it?”

These tortoises grow up among lava rocks in lowland nesting sites. They start life as inconspicuous 80- to 100-gram infants that avoid hawk predators, desiccation and overheating by living under rocks most of the time and scurrying around looking for food. They reach a particular size where when it becomes no longer efficient for them to remain in the lowlands year round, because there is not much vegetation around for six to eight months of the year. At some point tortoises are making their decision as to, “I’m going to migrate up the volcano into the cloudy, humid highlands,” where there is food all year round due to cloud cover on the top of the volcanos, so the soils are wet and vegetation growth is strong. According to our research, this defining moment is reached in early adulthood when a tortoise has a body mass of about 70 kg (154 lbs.).

I think females probably start reproducing [as soon as they become sexually mature] when males encounter them, since mating seems to be a male dominated decision. I think males have a very clear hierarchy based on their body size and I suspect combatively unable males don’t tend to reproduce, whereas big, mature males tend to dominate most of the reproduction as is the case in many species.

I was in a very dry area of Galapagos a few years ago, I was walking home from a day’s field work, and I saw two juvenile tortoises, early teens let’s say. One of them was a little bigger. The smaller one was running away from the bigger one for all it was worth. The bigger was chasing the smaller. When the small one stopped, the big one would bite its back legs, it would go for its head, it would wait until the small one extended its neck and bite, which would cause the small one to run on a bit more before looking for a place to hide. Whenever it tried to do that, the big one was on it again. I followed these two for about an hour and on that particular day I was feeling despondent about the human race and why we are such an aggressive species and I’m looking at these two little juvenile giant tortoises just thrashing it out for no apparent reason with the big one just absolutely dominating the smaller one. These two tortoises were a long way from reproductive maturity, they were just two little tortoises out in the woods: I’ve got no idea why they were fighting. There was plenty of food around, loads of space, there were no other tortoises visibly around. I think just like kids in the playground, these sort of dominance hierarchies can get established early in life and they’ll just last through life. There was no other social gains to be made, there wasn’t one showing off for another as adults do when they fight for food or territory. It was just two juveniles, one of them dominating the smaller one and not backing off no matter how submissive the subordinate was. I suppose natural selection is cold, hard, and unemotional.


African grey parrots

Reach sexual maturity: Around 5 to 7, though the onset of adolescence occurs between ages 1.5 and 3.5


Lifespan: 40-60 years in captivity; about 22 years in the wild

Via phone, Rebecca K. O’Connor, professional parrot trainer for over 20 years, and author of The Perfectly Trained Parrot and The Parrot for Life, told me:

I would say a 7-year-old parrot is probably more like a 20 year old person. By 20 years old, you have a pretty mellow parrot, generally, especially if it’s one that’s been in the same situation. We’re talking about a bird that doesn’t have behavioral issues that people have caused. They’re pretty chill at 20. They’re comfortable in their own skin. They’re not necessarily completely driven by hormones and they’ve got their act together. They do every season tend to have a hormonal spurt, but it’s not like when they’re younger.

They hit the teenager stage at a really different time period than us, ‘cause they’re on their own so much more quickly, but you’re still looking at that fledgling period, which is exactly what teenagers are doing. I would say what all birds have in common with human teenagers at that stage is a sense of adventure, a sense of play, and an annoying sense of fearlessness. With our parrots we’ve got them inside so there’s so much trouble they can get into. I’ve had an African grey parrot since he was 6 weeks old and he’s 23 now. He started talking at about 6 months old. I remember all of the trouble he’d get into those first two years. He’d get out of his cage, he’d wander around, he’d chew things he wasn’t supposed to, knock things over, destroy things. His name is Ty and my other was Loki and I remember at one point hearing the distinct sound of a parrot bill on a wine glass, and I came running out of my office standing right next to the wine glass and he looked at me and he went, “Loki.” Siblings try to blame shit on their peers and get away with it.

You know how they say when we got to our 40's we just don’t give a shit what people think anymore? I’ve seen that with African greys. They know the world, they’re not afraid of it, they’ve been there, done that, they don’t want to put up with shit from the dogs, they don’t want to put up with shit from stupid young parrots. It’s like a person who’s like, “Damn kids, get off my lawn.” I can’t put science to that, but anecdotally, yeah


*The printed lifespan figures reflect the animals’ lifespan in the wild. I included the captive lifespan of the African grey parrot, though, since they are relatively common pets.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.


Adrastra, patron saint of not giving a fuck

This is the best teen week article. Decision made.