Kids' Animal Station

For kids who love animals by a kid who loves animals

The Best Mothers of the Animal Kingdom

If you’ve ever watched National Geographic, you’ll know that life in the wild just isn’t easy.

So, I was thinking about the best way to honor Mother’s Day (in the US) and I thought, you know what? The best way to appreciate all the compassionate and hard-working mothers out there is to talk about the underrated, amazing animal mamas out there. We all know how great human mothers are anyway, right? Well, I do anyway (how could I not? I have three!). So why don’t we check out the various ways to raise your offspring. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend trying these infant-rearing techniques at home.

Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) female ‘Tata’ and her unnamed baby aged 2-3 months portrait. Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Rehabilitated and released (or descended from) between 1971 and 1995.–WWF

The Orangutan

At first glance, you may not guess that these peaceful and incredibly intelligent orange-furred great apes that call Indonesia and Malaysia their home deserve any Mother of the Year awards. But orangutans are generally known to be the animal species with the longest average duration of childhood dependence. That’s a fancy way to say that orangutans, alongside notable primates like the Chimpanzee and the Gorilla, care for their teenage and even adult babies the same way that a middle-aged mom might exasperatedly clean out her grown son’s man-cave. This is especially remarkable when considering that there are plenty of species—mammal, reptile, and amphibian alike—that simply plop their newborns out onto the ground and hit the road. That’s right! Orangutans don’t fuss about feeding, protecting, and teaching their little ones absolutely everything they need before kicking them out the nest, even after lugging around a baby in their bellies for about 8 to 9 months–a similarity to human beings that’s surely worth a double take.

This makes a lot of sense when you consider that orangutans are among the most intelligent and complex creatures of Earth with recorded abilities of using tools, problem solving, emotion, reasoning, memory retention, and multi-tiered social networks based on sex. Surely a baby orangutan has a lot to learn. But, rather than leaving their young to fend for themselves, they’re gently guided by their mother from the stage of nursing, riding on her back, and deliberate weaning from milk to fruit, to the juvenile age, where orangutan youth begin to climb and search on their own, all the way to adolescence and complete independence. On the whole, most orangutans are joined at the hip with their mama until approximately ages 8-12, when they take their leave. Wow! I’m getting tired just typing about it…..

The Crocodile

You may be suppressing a dramatic gasp of horror looking at the photo above, but don’t you worry! The big, mean croc in this photo is not actually gobbling the poor, defenseless baby. Quite the opposite–this fearsome mama is protecting her baby in the best way she knows how: by telling everyone else that, to get to her baby, you’ll have to go through her first! A female crocodile doesn’t just lay up to 60+ eggs in a precious clutch hidden beneath the earth and then call herself an Uber. Rather, she waits nearby for approximately 65 to 95 days, guarding her nest all the time, until they finally hatch, at which point the babies let out a special call for their mother to come dig them out.

Although strong enough to break themselves out of their egg with a special tooth called a caruncle, newborn crocodiles cannot walk. Thus, proud mother crocs must gently pick their brood up and carry their young to the water. In the first two vulnerable years of a baby crocodile’s life, their mother will guard them fiercely, with their father often stepping in to take care of the tots if mom’s out for the day. While croc hatchlings make a tantalizing meal to a whole host of would-be predators, from the Nile Monitor Lizard to birds of prey to hyenas, nobody will mess with a full grown crocodile. Who would’ve known that these fearsome beasts had such a soft spot?

The Blue Whale

Being the largest animal of Earth, recorded to weigh nearly 200 tonnes and 100 feet at maximum, you can imagine that the big Blue Whale has some big blue babies. You would be correct! At birth, newborn blue whales can be an upwards of 23 feet and 5,000-6,000 pounds–almost as long as your local FedEx truck! Imagine carrying that weight around for 10-12 months only to then have to push it out of you. No rest for the weary! Perhaps it does sweeten the deal for any grumpy whale moms out there that the birthing and rearing process demands a summer vacation from the poles down towards the Equator. But even after giving birth, her work is not over! She must nudge her big baby to the water’s surface in order for the calf to take his first breath. Man, I need a nap!

From then on, the blue whale calf will nurse for up to 11 months, gaining an estimated 10 pounds per day. Fattening up with blubber is key to survival in cold and dangerous waters, especially as the calf grows and begins to gain independence. That being said, it is normal for blue whale calves to stay with their mothers well into their juvenile years, forming a strong bond. But Mommy still needs her time! Adult female blue whales, often related to the mother but sometimes not, have been observed to ‘babysit’ another female’s calf while their mother is away. The exact logic behind this is known, but it can be inferred that its reasons are relatively similar to those for why humans babysit. Some suggest it creates a sort of promise in which the mother will later end up babysitting the other whale’s calf, or that it’s simply a way for younger female adult whales to practice raising a calf, to the convenience of both parties.

The African Elephant

Of all the majestic and complex animals Earth has nurtured, the African Elephant has long since been recognized by human beings for it’s intelligence, strength, and deep emotional expression. This is one of the most heartbreaking things about the exploitative and destructive ivory trade which tortures and kills them. More than that, the world’s largest land animals harbor touching maternal instincts that drive them to fiercely protect and gently nurture their youth. After 22 months of pregnancy, female elephants give birth to their calves while standing, often protected by a close member of their familial unit. After helping their newborn calf to it’s feet only minutes after being born, the mother nurses and protects her baby closest during the 2-day period where the calf quickly gathers the strength to travel at pace with the herd, which waits close by.

Baby elephants learn just about everything they need to know from Mom–from which plants are edible as they wean from their mother’s milk to negotiating life in the herd. But, like the blue whale, elephants really took the idea that “it takes a village” to heart. A system of “Allomothers,” other adult female elephants like grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins, will take turns raising and looking after the little calf, likely to the immense relief and appreciation of the new mother. Even cooler than that, female elephants actually stay in the same herd with their mother until she dies, while male elephants typically leave and live solitarily once they’ve reached adulthood. Family truly means everything to them. Elephants have been observed mourning over the bodies of those they have lost, especially when a mother loses her calf. Their visible grieving period can last for days as they touch, stand by, or carry their dead calf, but who knows the depth of the struggles they go through emotionally? No doubt, we have a lot to learn from these wise (and matriarchal) animals!

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