by Whit Gibbons

May 13, 2012

Cowbirds, starfish, and turtles do not give or receive Mother's Day gifts. One reason is that offspring don't know their mothers. Cowbirds deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds, and unknowing foster parents raise baby cowbirds along with their own young. Turtles lay their eggs and never look back. And a detached starfish arm can grow into a complete starfish that cannot claim to have had even a neglectful mother.

Nonetheless, humans do not have a monopoly on maternal devotion. The ancestors of many animal species here on Earth today successfully jumped the high hurdles of evolution simply because they had good mothers. Although young alligators do not bring their mothers flowers or candy, alligators join humans and many other mammals in representing the kind of maternal care that warrants recognition on Mother's Day. These mothers 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 carefully chosen spots but then disappear. The eggs and young are on their own for the rest of their lives. But exceptions exist even among these groups.

Burmese pythons, the giant constrictors that have become established in southern Florida, are noted for unusual maternal behavior. The female not only coils her body around the eggs but also warms herself up by shivering, thus enhancing the incubation of the eggs. Female king cobras, the largest venomous snake in the world, reaching lengths of 18 feet, are reported to stand guard until their eggs are safely hatched. A predator considering eating the eggs of either of these snakes might well become a meal itself. Mother blue-tailed skinks, common lizards in the eastern United States, stay with their clutch of eggs until they hatch. If a baby dies before hatching, the dutiful mother will pick the egg up in her mouth and remove it from the nest.

Certain species of frogs are contenders for the best-mother award among cold-blooded animals. Full-grown adult female Jamaican frogs are tiny, less than two inches in length. The mother lays her eggs, about 50 of them, up to 250 feet deep inside a cave and stays with the developing eggs. After about a month they hatch, and the baby frogs crawl up on their mother's back for the trip out of the cave. The mother can jump more than three feet without losing any of the babies! Hopping through a dark cave with babies clinging to your back is clearly a demonstration of maternal devotion.

Most female birds exhibit parental care by at least incubating the eggs. In some cases both parents provide care even after the babies hatch, but the mother gets credit for laying the eggs and always being around till the young are ready to fledge. I recently watched a female house finch feed her juvenile sunflower seeds. The baby, about equivalent in age to a human teenager, flies over with its mouth open and wings aflutter, still looking for a handout, which the mother provides.

Like other mammals, mother whales, porpoises, and manatees nurse their young, but they also have a unique role to play in rearing their young: they nudge them to the surface at regular intervals for air. Meanwhile, the marsupials, such as kangaroos and possums, not only nurse their babies but also carry them around in a pouch until they can fend for themselves.

Can we declare which animals make the best mothers? 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 benign neglect. 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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