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Plant, Animal Mothers Nurture Offspring - Just Like Human Moms!


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 little malevolent."

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Variations in parental care

Unlike primate 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.

"Frogs [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.

Protectors, teachers

Most animal mothers protect their young in some way.

"We've 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."

Human 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 carnivores.

"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.

"You [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

Plants also 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.

In many cases, the plant "mother" will actually put poisons or toxins into the covering of the outer fruit to prevent it from being eaten.

"You 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 them.

"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!"

However 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 year long.

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