Mother Knows Best

Points on Pets

By Lisa Velenovsky

In China, a new mother cradles her tiny baby constantly, giving her the care and attention a helpless newborn needs. Another mom, this one in Africa, gets a much-needed break when her women’s group watches over her baby while she rests. A hungry mom-to-be in the Pacific is fully focused on protecting her unborn children, oblivious to her own needs. And, in the U.S., a young mother nuzzles her baby, using touch to convey her love.

As Mother’s Day approaches, we celebrate all the roles that these moms and moms like them fulfill: nurturer, food source, protector, and teacher. The only difference is that these amazing moms are not human. They are the panda, elephant, octopus, and dog.

Mothers of the animal kingdom – no matter the species, no matter wild or domesticated – put their special skills and instincts toward the same goal as human mothers: to help their babies survive, thrive, and grow to adulthood well-prepared to face the world. They just approach things a little differently.

Pandas are often considered the clowns of the animal kingdom, with their roly-poly bodies and their adorably ungainly antics. But, make no mistake, mother pandas are deadly serious about nurturing. Panda cubs are pink, blind, and helpless at birth. They are also tiny, weighing around 3-5 ounces (that’s a half stick of butter to you) compared to mom’s 300 pounds. For the first three months, mommas spend nearly all of their time caring for their cubs; an Atlanta Zoo study found panda moms hold their cubs nearly 80% of the time. They cradle them to their chest much like humans to feed and protect them because the teeny-tiny newborns can’t even hold themselves up.

This non-stop mothering is crucial to a cub’s survival, but it takes time and energy. It also takes great gentleness, given the size difference between the two. If humans had the same baby/mother weight ratio, our moms would weigh more than 3 tons!

When it comes to tons, elephants are considered a superstar of animal-world mothers. To begin with, they endure a nearly 2-year gestation period, the longest of any mammal. That, in itself, is quite a feat.

The good news for elephant moms is that the matriarchal, group nature of child-rearing in the herd means other female elephants, known as “allmothers,” take turns helping care for the calf throughout its childhood. They are affectionate and fiercely protective. Together, they teach life skills from day one: how to nurse, how to find the best plants, how to defend against enemies, how to lead, and even how to navigate steep terrain.

There is one critical item that only mom can provide. Four times during the weaning process, her milk changes to meet the calf’s evolving needs. This includes adding plants with anti-inflammatory properties to her diet to soothe teething pain. With a mothering experience like that, it’s no surprise that elephant kids stick around for 16 years or more.

The octopus is one of the fiercest moms around. We’ve all heard of a mother choosing to sacrifice her life for her child, but that is business as usual for the octopus. After laying between 50,000 and 200,000 eggs on average, she immediately sets about to protect them. She separates her eggs into groups by characteristic, including most likely to survive, and then spends the next two months guarding over them and using water pushed out from her siphon to oxygenate, clean, and protect the eggs.  All of this means no time to feed herself or leave the area. Sadly, most octopus moms die from starvation soon after their eggs hatch.

While this may be the most consistently selfless act of motherhood found in nature, scientists have discovered that mom’s drive to sacrifice herself is a biological imperative for species survival. Secretions from the optic gland between her eyes appear to be tied to the reproductive organ maturity and the deactivation of digestive and salivary glands, which leads the octopus starve itself to death. Without her death, there would be no life.

Aside from human babies, the babies we are most familiar with are puppies and kittens. Dogs and cats are certainly no slouches in the mothering department, and their mom powers rival those of their relatives in the wild. But one critically important maternal factor can determine whether a puppy or kitten becomes a friendly, healthy, and well-adjusted adult or is skittish, aggressive, and difficult. This factor is how their mothers treat them; specifically, the amount of touch they get from an early age. Scientific studies indicate a correlation in the mammal world between higher levels of touch stimulation and higher levels of engagement and normal development. Consistent touch and love from mom demonstrated through grooming, nudging, nuzzling, and simple contact has a significant positive impact on confidence, friendliness, and interaction and sociability skills.

Nature abounds with thousands of other mothers that have awe-inspiring, weird, and wonderful skills combined with unwavering instincts to nurture and care for their young — like alligators that carry their young in their mouths for protection, birds that use their poop to hide themselves and their eggs from lizards, and frogs that separate their tadpoles to keep them from eating each other.

As strange as some of these animal mothering skills sound, ultimately the goal of all mothers – human and non-human — is the same: to protect and nurture their young until they are ready to take on the world. As they say, “Mother knows best.”

Sources:

“Three Reasons Elephants Make Good Mothers.” https://www.ecowatch.com/elephant-mothers-2567941539.html

“This is Why Mother Octopuses Grimly Starve Themselves to Death.”https://www.sciencealert.com/mother-octopus-senescence-death-after-mating-eggs-reproduction-rna-sequence-optic-gland

“Animal Mothers Remind Us a Lot of Our Own.” https://www.api.nationalgeographic.com

“Does ‘Mother Love’ Play a Role in Rearing Better Dogs?” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201605/does-mother-love-play-role-in-rearing-better-dogs

6 Fierce Animal Moms That Go to Extremes For Their Young https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/05/animals-mothers-pandas-spiders-octopus.html

“Surprising Ways Animals Care for Their Young.”https://www.thedodo.com/archive/surprising-ways-animals-care-for-their-young

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