motherhood through the animal kingdom

As Mother’s Day approaches, it’s a good opportunity to wonder what it’s like to be a mother in the animal kingdom. Most of us have a solid understanding of human motherhood, but in nature, maternal care comes in many forms.

Let’s take a closer look at the variety of ways animals provide care, to give youngsters the best chance of success.

The power of the placenta

For many species, life begins in the womb. One of the most important ways for mothers to support their little ones before birth is through a placenta, the temporary organ that develops inside the uterus to support a fetus. Placentas not only act as the interface between mother and baby, but can provide all fetal nutrition, allow the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with the mother, and even remove waste products from the fetus.



Read more: Using the placenta to understand how complex organs evolve


While our close relatives (eutherian or placental mammals) are known to have a placenta, we are not the only ones who have one. In fact, the placenta has evolved more than 100 times independently in the animal kingdom!

Blue-tongued lizard with its young newborn.
National Parks and Wildlife Service, South Australia

Other placental species include certain reptiles such as the blue-tongued lizard and many sharks, including the Australian sharpnose. Even marsupials have a placenta, although it usually only supports young for a few days.

marsupial mothers

Outside the womb, the queens of maternal care are marsupials such as kangaroos, koalas, and Tasmanian devils. Marsupial mothers provide food and protection from predators for a long period of lactation inside the pouch.

In marsupials, pregnancy is relatively short but the young then spend a lot of time in the pouch. For example, the pregnancy of tammar wallabies can be as short as four weeks, but mothers can provide milk to their young in the pouch for almost a year. During this time, the weight of babies increases by 2,000 times. By comparison, human infants triple their weight in their first year of life.

A mother kangaroo, tending to her joey in the pouch.
Ethan Brooke/www.pexels.com

Layers

An African rock python, tending to her eggs. Python mothers wrap themselves around their eggs as they incubate and may even shiver to keep the eggs warm.
J. Lanki/wikimedia

Unlike animals that develop a placenta, egg-laying animals generally lay nutrient-rich eggs to support development. The parents of some species consider their job done after spawning, but others continue to care for their young by protecting the eggs and providing food after the babies have hatched.

A Port Jackson shark egg. After laying eggs, mothers carry them in their mouths and screw them into a secure rock crevice, hoping that they will be protected during their 10 to 12 months of development.
Kate Bunker/flickr

Some spawning sharks continue to provide care after birth. Port Jackson sharks carry their eggs in their mouths until they find a protected rock crevice to hide them.

Hummingbird mothers care for their young without any paternal support.
Mike’s Birds

In birds, mothers provide warmth and protection during the incubation of their eggs. In some species of birds such as hummingbirds, only the mother provides care after birth. However, in other cases, such as penguins, it is a team effort with mothers and fathers providing food and protection for their offspring.

For some, it takes a village

For some animals, motherhood goes beyond caring for your own children. Like humans, orcas (killer whales) give up the potential to reproduce later in life through menopause.

Menopause may prevent them from raising more children, but it allows them to divert their efforts to raising the next generation by caring for their grandchildren.

Killer whales and a few of their close relatives (including beluga whales and narwhals) are one of the few non-human mammals that give up breeding later in life and enter menopause. This allows mothers to continue to support the next generation by caring for their grandchildren.
Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith/flickr

Many animals need even more support, so some species form societies where the whole community will care for the young, rather than just the parents. Meerkats live in groups of up to 30 individuals where parenting duties are shared.

Meerkat mother keeping an eye out for predators with one of her pups.
Theo Stikkelman

Young females will “guard” the young while the rest of the crowd forages for food, sometimes having to put their own lives in danger to protect the younger members of the group.

Within elephant herds, mothers provide milk to their babies, but other members of the herd (called doulas, they may be male or female) provide encouragement and physical support to the mother and growing calves. . This same behavior is observed in dolphins, as well as in several primates including chimpanzees and gorillas.

pregnant man white seahorse. Seahorse fathers experience a male pregnancy, providing nutrition, gas exchange, and protection to the developing embryos in its pouch.
marine explorer

In some species, it is the father who cares most for the offspring. For example, seahorses exhibit male pregnancy, providing nutrition and protection from predators inside its pouch. For a mother seahorse, her caring responsibilities end once she has deposited her eggs in the male’s pouch.

If we can learn anything from the animal kingdom, it’s that motherhood comes in many forms.

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