Sunday is Mother's Day in America, a special day set aside for honoring
mothers and celebrating all those qualities and actions that make
mother "Mom." But animals and even plants also have evolved their own
dizzyingly diverse maternal behaviors over the millennia, all aimed at
ensuring that their offspring survive and thrive.
.Audio courtesy of James Fuller.)
When asked why that sort of social behavior
helps raise up healthy young, Cords speculates that "sharing the job of
watching the kids, many pairs of eyes watching over those vulnerable
youngsters at once might prevent them from being picked on by a
predator or bothered or harassed by somebody in the group who is a
Variations in parental care
mothers, many other animal mothers do not stay around to raise their
young. And there is often variation among different species of the
same class of animal. Shahid Naeem says frogs offer one example.
[generally] lay their eggs and then go away. But in the case of the
gastric rooting frog, the tadpoles actually grow up in the stomach of
the mother and then eventually emerge as little frogs emerging from the
mouth of the mother."
A third survival strategy is employed by
certain tree frogs in which the tadpoles stay very close to the mother
and derive both protection and nutrition from her.
"So even among what we see as primitive vertebrates, you will still see some range of parental care," says Naeem.
Most animal mothers protect their young in some way.
all admired cats picking up their offspring one by one and moving them
from a place where they thought is no longer safe," recalls Naeem.
"Birds will [sometimes] wander around and pretend like they have a
broken wing to try to distract a predator from the eggs, and we all
know that if you encounter a goose that is raising goslings, it's going
to be very aggressive to you - even when it's fairly clear that a goose
doesn't stand a chance of winning in that kind of contest."
mothers teach their young, often by joining them in observing and
interacting in the external world, then discussing it with them. Other
animals do not do this. Their young learn on their own, mostly by
observation and mimicry. But there are other clever ways that mammalian
young manage to learn from their mothers, especially if they are
"I just saw a picture recently of cheetahs bringing a
dead gazelle to her cheetah cubs, and they can pounce on it and 'kill'
it although it is actually dead," says Marina Cords. "So she is
providing an opportunity to them, in a way."
She adds that there are very few anecdotal reports of behavior like that in non-human primates.
[do] see young ones sniffing the mouths of their mothers, for example,
and you wonder if they're learning the smell of what it is that mother
is consuming, and they might recognize that when they meet that food at
some point in the future."
Plants "mother" too
have developed ingenious maternal strategies for engendering and
nurturing the next generation. Fortunately, many of these strategies
nurture us, too.
"Most of our food we eat, whether it's rice or
wheat or other food - tomatoes, cucumbers, apples - these are actually
the hard work of the mother, which has often provided a lots of
nutrients, moisture and water for them," says Naeem.
cases, the plant "mother" will actually put poisons or toxins into the
covering of the outer fruit to prevent it from being eaten.
don't want to eat a green tomato!" cautions Naeem. But when the fruit
is ready to be eaten, then it turns an attractive color and we seek
"In that case, says Naeem, "the mother is actually trying to
encourage us, or an animal, to try to eat the fruit so that it will
then digest away all the bad material, go away from the mother plant
and then deposit the seeds in a nice little pack of manure!"
you look at it, almost all life, plant and animal, owes not only its
creation, but also its survival, to mom. And that's all the more reason
we should take time out to contemplate and celebrate motherhood - all