Mothers can teach their children much about the world, but some mothers can do it without ever meeting their young. Take the field cricket Gryllus pennsylvanicus. A female cricket isn’t exactly a caring mother. Once she lays her eggs, she abandons them to their fate. But amazingly, she can also forewarn her young of the dangers they might face. If a pregnant female is exposed to a wolf spider, her experiences affect her unborn young. When they hatch, the baby crickets are more likely to freeze when they smell wolf spiders nearby.
If mothers sense a threat in their environment, there are clear advantages in being able to prepare her young to face those threats. Over the last decade or so, scientists have discovered that many animal and plant mothers do exactly this, even before their young are born. If pregnant water fleas are exposed to the smell of a predatory midge, they produce young that are armed with larger “crowns-of-thorn”, defensive spiky helmets that make them difficult mouthfuls. In the same way, aphids produce more winged offspring if they sense danger. Even the humble radish can generate a generation with sharp, spiky hairs.
In all of these examples, the adaptations are physical ones. The case of the crickets, documented by Jonathan Storm and Steven Lima at Indiana State University, is the clearest example yet of mothers preparing their young for life by influencing their behaviour. Physical defences wouldn’t do much good here, for even the largest of crickets are easy pickings for spiders.
Storm and Lima bred crickets that had never seen a wolf spider before. They placed pregnant females in cages with wolf spiders whose killing fangs had been disabled with wax. After a while, the females were removed and allowed to lay their eggs. Storm and Lima collected the hatchlings and placed them in plastic arenas lined in paper saturated with the faeces and silk lines of wolf spiders.
Pregnant women are generally advised to avoid drinking alcohol and for good reason – exposing an unborn baby to alcohol can lead to a range of physical and mental problems from hyperactivity and learning problems to stunted growth, abnormal development of the head, and mental retardation.
But alcohol also has much subtler effects on a foetus. Some scientists have suggested that people who get their first taste of alcohol through their mother’s placenta are more likely to develop a taste for it in later life. This sleeper effect is a long-lasting one – exposure to alcohol in the womb has been linked to a higher risk of alcohol abuse at the much later age of 21. In this way, mums could be inadvertently passing down a liking for booze to their children as a pre-birthday present.
Now, Steven Youngentob from SUNY Upstate Medical University and Jon Glendinning from Columbia University have found out why this happens. By looking at boozing rats, they have found that those first foetal sips of alcohol make the demon drink both taste and smell better.
The duo raised several pregnant rats on diets of either chow, liquids or liquids that had been spiked with alcohol. The third group eventually had a blood alcohol concentration of about 0.15%, a level that would cause a typical human to slur, stagger or become moody.
When the females eventually gave birth, month-old pups born to boozy mothers were more likely to lick an alcohol-coated feeding tube than those whose mothers were tee-total. These rats had been born with more of a taste for booze.