Amazing Animal Mothers (And Others Who Will Make You Look Like Mother Teresa)
Published on April 13, 2012
The last thing modern moms need is yet another reason to feel that they’re not doing a good enough job. In the animal kingdom, there are plenty of mothers who make your efforts pale in comparison, but don’t worry — there are others who will make you feel a lot better about yourself this Mother’s Day.
Congratulations, You’re Still Pregnant!
While nine months may seem like forever for some human mothers, pregnancy lasts much longer for many animals. So be glad that you’re not a rhino, who’s pregnant for 16 months, a sperm whale (16 to 18 months) or an elephant (22 months). Be even more glad that you’re not an elephant who’s just a little bit overdue: Last year, an elephant gave birth at a British zoo after being pregnant for 700 days. Yes, that’s almost two years.
Mammals don’t have the worst of it, either: An alpine salamander’s pregnancy can last three years, and it’s believed that the frilled shark may carry offspring for three and a half years.
Speaking of toting around babies — along with extra weight — polar bears gain 400 pounds in pregnancy!
Still, you’re both better off than the kiwi bird, who’s about the size of a chicken but whose egg is six times the size of a chicken egg. The egg can take up so much room that the kiwi can’t fit food in her stomach and has to fast for the last two or three days of her pregnancy. And then she has to lay the egg, which can weigh up to 20 percent of the mother’s weight — the equivalent of a 120-pound woman giving birth to a 24-pound infant.
Helicopter Animal Mothers
Every neighborhood has that overachieving mom who makes everyone else feel (and look) bad, and the same is true for the animal kingdom. Most cold-blooded animals have an enviable mothering style — like frogs, who lay thousands of eggs, and then abandon them, figuring that at least a few will survive on their own.
But some frog species apparently disapprove of this method. The mountain chicken frog deposits her eggs in a burrow in the ground, and once her tadpoles hatch, she feeds them by laying more eggs for them to eat. Certain types of poison dart frogs also lay eggs for their tadpoles to eat, and then spoil them even more, giving each tadpole an individual room, such as a little pool of water in a plant or a small hole in a tree.
What to feed the kids is always a source of contention for competitive moms. Our fellow mammals have no choice but to breast-feed, and if you found it hard, be thankful that you’re not a harp seal. They nurse their young for 12 days without eating, losing about seven pounds per day. It’s an effective post-pregnancy diet plan, but not a very pleasant one.
If you think producing milk is taxing, mammals don’t have the worst of it when it comes to feeding their young with their own bodies. There’s a type of amphibian called a caecelian, which has risen to the challenge in rather repulsive ways by growing an extra layer of skin every three days that the young scrape off and eat.
But at least those moms survive the process. For some kinds of spiders, the young’s first meal is their mother. Although these spiders only lay one clutch of eggs in their lives and die afterward, the hungry babies certainly don’t wait to eat — they start chowing down on her while she’s still alive.
Working Mothers of the Animal World
Lots of modern moms worry when they’re not staying home with the kids. For most animals, working while raising children is the norm. One researcher on baboons has pointed out that they’re all dual-career mothers: None of them get to stay home to raise the baby, and they all have to find food and do all the other adult baboon things at the same time.
And while most of us have to work hard at earning a living and raising the kids, lots of animals don’t bother to parent their young at all. And we’re not just talking about the usual suspect frogs who lay their eggs and run. There are neglectful moms, even among animals that have a reputation for devoted care.
The scrub fowl gets out of incubating her own eggs by burying them in a pile of rotting compost, which keeps the eggs just as warm as mom would. Birds like the cuckoo and cowbird do even less work: They’ve been known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the young cuckoo hatches, the baby pushes foster siblings out of the nest, and the parents put all their efforts into raising the interloper — while the real mom gets on with her life.
It Takes a Colony
Mother lions raise their young communally and often nurse each other’s cubs (although they do let their own offspring feed first). Ruffed lemurs look out for other babies when their moms are away, alarm calling when there’s danger, and grooming and playing with them.
But before you start to feel bad about not pitching in to care for all the kids in the neighborhood, it turns out that many animals who have help with child care aren’t exactly role models.
Among South American marmosets and tamarins, several males help care for a female’s babies — because she’s mated with all of them. In many group-living animals — wolves, hyenas, meerkats and the dwarf mongoose — only one female reproduces, and all the others help raise her young. And if any of them get knocked up, the dominant female kills the babies.
There are even some animals that have an entire staff that handles the kids and all the other household chores. Take the naked mole rat. A colony is made up of one queen and a handful of male mates, while the rest act as soldiers and workers. All the queen does is reproduce, while the other members of the colony dig tunnels, find food and protect the family.
You might envy the naked mole rat queen. Of course, she is naked, wrinkled, blind and living underground with family members who roll in their own excrement to share their smell. Maybe the labor of raising your own kids is a fair trade-off after all.
Linda Lombardi is a former zookeeper, college professor and the author of Animals Behaving Badly, a new book that grew from her blog of the same name.