Think your mother is overprotective? While many a teenager has had that thought since the dawn of the traditional family, there’s a good scientific explanation for mothers’ tendency to defend their young, even at their own risk.

Herds encircle younger animals, and individual animals charge at threats. In addition, herds also stampede, which is simultaneously a flight and defense tactic. Other animals, such as ground-nesting birds, many reptiles and most mammals, rely primarily on camouflage to protect their offspring. While one or both of the parents may remain to physically protect their brood, their best defense is to remain unseen.

Some species of fish protect their young by keeping them in their mouths, while others use camouflage or bright colors to warn off predators. Humpback whales, like many large animals, use their impressive size and bulk to protect their young. They weigh between 25 and 40 tons, and a simple nudge from something that size is easily fatal to most predators.

The methods used by animals to protect their young are many, but they are not decisive. Predators have evolved methods of their own to defeat the tactics employed by their prey, with strategies that are every bit as cunning as those they counter.

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