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From daring otters to overprotective opossums, a new book tells tales of animal adolescence

Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers
Scribner
2019
368 pp.
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An enduring story plot finds a youth suddenly alone in the world, struggling to find shelter from the elements, safety from predators, food, and new friends. These struggles usually involve some tough lessons but ultimately lead to knowledge, a new identity, self-reliance, and maybe even love. In Wildhood, this theme comes to exhilarating life as evolutionary biologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and science writer Kathryn Bowers describe the challenges faced by adolescent animals.

The book relates the coming-of-age stories of a king penguin named Ursula, a hyena named Shrink, a humpback whale named Salt, and a European wolf named Slavc—all adolescent animals and research subjects followed by field biologists. We meet Ursula as she leaves her parents for the first time and jumps daringly into the icy sea filled with hungry leopard seals. We watch Shrink, who has an unusual knack for social situations, rise in the stark hierarchy of hyenas. We observe Salt develop desire and navigate courtship and consent among “rowdy groups” of bull whales and follow Slavc as he sets out on an epic journey across the Alps in winter.

In addition to these four stories, the authors include smaller anecdotes and gleanings from observations of other wild animals and human youth, all members of the “horizontal tribe of adolescents.” On a single page, you might meet bald eagles, flying foxes, salamanders, and fruit flies. Collectively, the stories illustrate four competencies: how to stay safe, how to live with others, how to communicate sexually, and how to leave the nest and care for oneself.

Learning to stay safe involves taking risks and getting close to danger. The first pages of the book introduce readers to a group of adolescent sea otters in California who swim in the “Triangle of Death,” where great white sharks lurk and there are few places to hide. In choosing to swim where no others dare, those that survive learn to identify and evade predators. Additional examples—from clueless farmed salmon to human teenagers at scary movies—emphasize the fact that some level of risk-seeking behavior may make individuals safer, more informed adults.

If you are wondering how much protection is appropriate for a human teenager, the authors explain that there is considerable variation in the wild. Opossum mothers take their offspring out for practice overnights sleeping away from home, while other animal parents barely look up as their uninformed offspring waddle, flap, or dash away.

Some animals, like some kids, never leave home. In the animal kingdom, this can be a rather good strategy. Male western bluebirds that stick around for the winter sometimes inherit their parents’ territory, and there are red squirrel mothers who fill up caches for their young and then move out, leaving behind a proven territory for their lucky offspring.

There are special considerations for social animals who live in groups. A parent wondering why their teenager is obsessed with status and social media will likely be interested to learn that “status is like gravity,” helping social creatures from chickens to hyenas to humans gain greater access to food, territory, and other resources. The authors point out that in the natural world, status assessments may be limited by space and season, but for modern youth, the internet may create status assessment overload.

Wildhood’s chapters on sexual development call for more education on courtship, relationships, and consent and less focus on the sex act itself. They explain that moths, songbirds, and whales first must practice courtship rituals and need to learn to correctly read the cues made by others.

The authors clearly believe there are “lessons” to be gained from the natural world and suggest that we spend more time acknowledging and learning from species’ commonalities and less time worrying about anthropomorphism. Finding the links between a dizzying number of observations from a wide variety of domestic and wild species makes for fun reading; however, the scientific reader may miss discussion of exceptions and caveats. For example, shoaling fish may inform some aspects of school bullying and human in-group political behavior but not all.

Nonetheless, there is much here for the nature lover, the parent seeking advice, and the college freshman tackling “adulting.” By laying out the adolescent experience of so many species in rich detail, the authors normalize and celebrate the beauty and complexity of our own species’ journey into the big wide world.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.