ARE HUMANS THE ONLY ANIMALS THAT CELEBRATE MOTHER'S DAY?

by Whit Gibbons


May 14, 2006


Considering the commercialization of Mother's Day, you might think that humans have some kind of monopoly on the importance of motherhood and maternal responsibility.

Other species may appear oblivious to what becomes of their offspring, but this is not true at all. The ancestors of all animal species here on earth with us today successfully jumped the high hurdles of evolution because of having had good mothers.

Although the approaches are not the same ones humans use, some of the steps mothers of other species take to raise their young are noteworthy. The complexity of living systems interacting with their environments and each other makes the mother mission particularly convoluted for some animals. The range of variability among species in the level and type of attention parents give to their offspring is remarkable. Some show active concern for the welfare of their young in a manner we can recognize. Apes and monkeys, for example, nurture, nurse, and care for their babies for an extended period after birth, as humans do.

Humans, elephants, and alligators represent one extreme of motherhood. All have mothers who are attentive to their offspring before birth and long after. All will do what they can to protect their babies from harm. At the other extreme are the mothers of most amphibians, reptiles, insects, and fish, which lay eggs in selected spots and then disappear. The eggs and young are on their own for the rest of their lives. But these species still deserve a Mother's Day card for their front-end investment in their offspring.

For example, a female slider turtle develops large follicles, which are equivalent to the yolk of a bird egg, months before laying eggs. When the eggs are fertilized by a male slider during the spring mating period, the developing embryos have enough yolk to nourish the baby turtle for an entire year during its early life. The mother lays the eggs in what she intends as a safe, underground nest. So, although she drops the eggs, covers the nest, and never looks back, she has done her motherly chore before the baby ever reaches the water.

Like humans, all mammal babies depend on mother's milk for nourishment. Even so, the variability among mammal species is great. Two mammal species, the duckbill platypus and spiny anteater of Australia, lay eggs. Tree shrews are mammals that give minimal attention to their young. The female lives with her mate in one tree and has her babies in a nest some distance away. She visits the nest once every two days to let the young nurse. In contrast, whales, porpoises, and manatees take on a much greater responsibility. They must not only nurse the young but also make sure they nudge them to the surface at regular intervals for air. Meanwhile, the marsupials, such as kangaroos and opossums, not only nurse their babies but carry them around in a pouch until they can fend for themselves.

Most female birds actively perform as parents by at least incubating the eggs. And in some cases both parents provide care even after the babies hatch, but the mother gets the credit for laying the eggs and always being around till the young are ready to fledge. Each day I watch a female house finch feed her juvenile baby sunflower seeds. The baby, which may be equivalent to a teenager, looks full grown and flies over to the mother with its mouth open still looking for a handout. I will let readers draw their own parallels with the behavior of human teenagers.

Can we declare which animals make the best mothers? The answer is no. The parents of every species do what works best for them based on their evolutionary history. Any species that is still around has presumably been doing things right, whether by constant attention or complete disinterest. The measures animals will take to protect their offspring are more impressive for some than for others. But the mothers of all animals, including humans, are so exceptional that it is fitting to have a special day to honor them.



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