Beyond Your Backyard - Celebrating Mothers In The Wild
By Kimberly J. Epp
On Sunday, May 12th, mothers celebrate their special day. Raising and loving a child is hard work and takes a lot of sacrifices, yet most mothers will tell you how rewarding it is. But we aren't the only species that loves our children. Let's take a closer look at some of the species (near and far), and how they raise and care for their young.
All mothers care for their young to a certain degree, some more than others. But let's pay homage to some of the outstanding moms in nature. A big thank you to the talented photographers for the use of their images. Getting photos of motherhood in action isn't always easy, but it sure is rewarding.
Animal mothers always go that extra mile for their young. They feed their young above themselves, protect their young and even play with them. They also show them forms of affection. All of these things factor in on raising a healthy baby that can one day survive on it's own. From gorillas which are almost human-like to whales which are highly empathetic, there are so many great mothers out there.
Starting close to home, a Red Fox mother digs a den in preparation for her babies. She stays with her kits while her mate brings her food. She dotes on them, plays with them, and fiercely protects them. The kits stay with their mother until they are 6 months to 1 year old. It is not uncommon to see mom and kits laying together lazily in the sun. The mother teaches them how to hunt so that they can survive on their own.
A keystone predator, the coyote, also digs her den in preparation of her litter of pups. Like the fox, the male brings food to the den as the mother cares for and verociously guards her pups. If anything ever happens to the male, it can be especially trying for the female. She will nurse her young and give them regurgitated food, and teach them how to hunt. The pups stay with their mother until fall. Coyote mothers will feed the pups over themselves, and sometimes look to be almost starving.
Familial bonds are strong in the Canada Goose family. The goslings start communicating with their parents from right within the egg. The mother plucks the down from her breast and uses it to line her nest. This also leaves her breast bare, and able to emit more warmth to the eggs and then the goslings. Goslings stay with their parents for a full year, and even return with them the following Spring to the same area. Canada Geese mate for life, and both parents help raise the goslings.
There is nothing sweeter than watching a mallard duck mother with a long string of ducklings following close behind her. Mom finds a new mate each year, and the ducks prefer to nest near water. Once the clutch is laid, mom is on her own caring for her ducklings. Mallard mothers have been known to seek human intervention if one of their ducklings falls into a grate.
Within a vast population of breeding Antarctic Fur Seals, the pups can recognize their mother's specific calls. As strength comes in numbers, the females care for their pups in large groups. After the mother returns from fishing, her high pitched call is recognized by her pup. After a month, the baby is left to fend for itself.
The Southern White Rhino is one of our chubby unicorns under constant threat. Sadly we lost the last male Northern White Rhino last year, a species decimated by poaching. Southern White Rhinos currently have a stable population, but with one being poached every hour in Africa, it is just another species needlessly being wiped out - all for a superstition that the horn carries powers of virility.
The White Rhino, the third largest land mammal in the world, keeps her calf close. Calves usually determine the direction and amount of travel. Mothers will fight for the protection of their young. Like elephants, the safest spot for the calves is under the mother's tummy. They know it is not safe to leave their mother's side. Females and the young associate in groups while males are primarily solitary. The calves stay with their mothers for 2 to 3 years.
The cheetah is a wonderful big cat mother. She raises her litter of 3 to 5 cubs all by herself. Due to the dangers of predation, the mother moves the cubs to a new den every few days. As she must hunt and care for them by herself, the first 6 weeks has the highest mortality rate for the cubs. After 6 weeks of age, the cubs follow their mother on hunting trips. They are then safe under her protection. They are then virtually inseparable until the cubs finally go off on their own at age 16 to 24 months.
Interestingly, the larger the animal, the longer the young usually stay with their mothers, and one cannot discuss motherhood without mentioning one of the greatest mothers of the wild, the elephant. The elephant has the longest gestation period of any other mammal. The African Elephant has a gestation of 22 months and the Asian Elephant's gestation lasts 18 to 22 months. Elephant calves nurse until age 2 to 3 years.
Elephant females rule the herd, and the entire herd which includes the matriarch (usually the Grandmother), nannies and aunts help care for the calves. The herd is almost entirely female except for the young male calves. The family structure is unlike any other on earth. Elephants in sanctuaries commonly adopt the younger counterparts who need mothers. So the best mother award has to go to the elephant. Elephants are also facing enormous threats, and I for one hope these great mothers will never cease to roam the earth. 🐘
Epp is an Environmental Educator and writer and is also the President and field trip coordinator of the Moose Jaw Nature Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.