Motherhood is a life-changing experience for humans and wildlife alike. Wildlife mothers devote precious resources to finding a mate, digging dens, building nests, giving birth and protecting and feeding their babies. Just because they’re not human doesn’t make wildlife mothers any less dedicated.

Possum mom

Going Hungry

Human moms often diet after giving birth to lose their baby weight, but in the wildlife world, some mothers start extreme fasts before they even give birth in order to give their young the best start in life. Female bears give birth in their winter dens, where the helpless young will be safe and warm, even though that means mom doesn’t get to eat for weeks or even months prior to giving birth. Bears gorge themselves on such rich foods as nuts and berries (black bears), salmon (grizzlies) and blubbery seals (polar bears) in order to pack on weight in preparation for their fast.

Pacific gray whales migrate thousands of miles from cold, plankton-rich Arctic waters to relatively  nutrient-poor tropical lagoons off of the coast of Mexico where they give birth. This protects their calves from killer whales, which stick to the colder waters. It also gives their newborns time to feed on their incredibly rich milk (53% fat!) and build a layer of insulating blubber before the must head to the icy Arctic. Like bears, the mother whales go hungry for months while still needing to produce high calorie milk for their babies. During this time they may lose as much as 8 tons of weight!

Delicate Touch

RaccoonPredatory animals are expertly equipped for killing. Claws, fangs, and brute strength ensure that predators can take down prey that’s often much larger than themselves, but these adaptations for killing prey are the equivalent of the steak knives and scissors in the playpen. Such lethally designed predator mothers need to be extremely careful with their delicate babies.

Alligators have powerful jaws that clamp down on prey including fish, snakes, and small mammals. The jaws of an adult alligator can exert over 2,000 pounds of pressure! They are strong enough to crush right through turtle shells and tear giant chunks of flesh from prey too large to swallow in one gulp. Yet alligator moms use those same jaws to delicately tear open their nest of mud and decaying vegetation to release their newly hatched young. Not only that, they have the gentle skill to individually pick up their tiny hatchlings, which only measure a few inches long, and transport them to the safety of the water.

No Strollers Needed

It’s a dangerous world out there and wildlife moms need a to make sure they can move their young from  place to place to find food and avoid predators. Some baby animals are able to run and keep up with mom soon after birth, such as young zebra, quail and hares. Monkeys and apes have arms and hands similar to humans’ and many can carry their babies around with them or have their babies cling to them. Other species without such dexterous hands have babies that are able to balance on or cling to their mom’s back, including sloth bears, swans, opossums, loons and anteaters.

Surinam toads have an even more unique way of moving their young around. Rather than simply laying a clutch of eggs and leaving them to their fate, female Surinam toads carry their eggs on their back. The sticky eggs settle into their mom’s spongy, honeycombed skin where they hatch, grow and complete metamorphosis before striking out on their own, getting the protective benefit of their mom’s speed and size the whole time.

It Takes a Village

Lucky human moms have the help from their extended families, friends and of course, dads. Many wild species live in social groups and enjoy the same benefit. Elephant herds are matriarchal and made up of the dominant female, her sisters and all of their young. Baby elephants are coddled and protected by the entire herd and are often play under the watchful eye of a babysitter, called an allomother, while the rest of the adults are foraging. Musk ox calves also get the protection of the herd.  If wolves attack, the adults form a protective ring around the young, facing the wolves with their thick skulls with sharp horns. Wolves themselves are social animals, and while only the dominant female gives birth, the rest of the pack actively takes part in the care, protection and feeding of cubs.

Manatee_motherandcalf_USFWS_260wQuantity not Quality

Humans devote an amazing amount of time to the care and protection of their babies, and so do many wild animal moms. But in nature some species have evolved a different, but equally effective, tactic. Instead of having just a few babies, many species have dozens, hundreds or even thousands of offspring. It’s just not possible for a mother to take care of that many young. Without that care, most of those offspring will fall prey to predators or fail to find food or habitat and die. But given the sheer numbers of young, some are bound to survive to adulthood to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species. Wildlife species as diverse as fish, frogs, sea turtles and insects employ this motherhood strategy.

Mr. Moms

In some species, the male takes on the bulk of the baby care. Seahorse males have a pouch in which the female deposits her eggs. The male fertilizes them, supplies them with oxygen from his own body and carries them until they hatch and head out on their own. The female visits with the male each day and will mate with him again when his pouch is empty, but takes no active part in the development of the young after she lays her eggs.

Emperor penguin females lay their single egg at the beginning of the Antarctic winter and immediately pass it on to their mate before heading back out to sea. It’s the male’s job to incubate the egg by holding it on his feet covered by a flap of skin on his abdomen to prevent it from freezing. For 65 d
ays he does nothing but protect his egg, not even eat. Shortly before the eggs hatch the well-fed female returns to relieve him of his duties. The male heads out to sea to feed but will return to feed his chick and take turns with his mate returning to sea for food.

Published: May 9, 2009