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What does It Mean When an Animal is Said to be "Precocial"?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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A precocial animal is an animal which is born in an advanced state of development, allowing it to move around independently within a few hours of birth, and sometimes within minutes. As a general rule, precocial animals are still reliant on their parents for a period of time after birth, but they are more capable of looking after themselves, in contrast with the largely helpless altricial species, who require a period of development after birth before they can move around or open their eyes.

Ungulates are a well known example of precocial animals. Within minutes of birth, a young ungulate is capable of standing up to nurse, and ungulates can also take faltering steps within minutes of a birth. These characteristics allow the animals to run and hide from predators, and they allow the young to keep up with the herd as it moves. Even with these traits, ungulates stick with their parents for several weeks or months, nursing and learning how to eat and defend themselves.

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Precocial animals are mobile within minutes of birth, although they may not be very steady on their feet. They are also typically born with a layer of fur or down, which may be shed later, depending on the species. Many precocial animals have special baby coats which are designed to help them blend in with the natural environment, allowing them to hide from predators who might prey on weaker young animals in preference to hardier adults. Precocial animals are also always born with their eyes open.

Most animals fall somewhere into a continuum at birth, rather than being born strictly altricial or precocial. For example, goslings and ducklings can waddle around and even swim shortly after being hatched, but they cannot regulate their internal temperatures very well, so they rely on their parents for warmth. These animals are also not capable of gathering food on their own, using their parents as models to learn how to find useful food.

One notable exception to this general rule are superprecocial animals, animals which are basically born ready to go, as it were. A superprecocial animal has all of the traits of an adult, although by nature it is smaller. A group of birds known as megapodes is one example of superprecocial animals; these birds can run, catch prey, and even fly within hours of hatching.

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