Mother Nature

Parental love is an unbreakable bond, and each species has its own unique approach to caring for a baby

We can calculate how much it costs to raise a human child, but it’s difficult to estimate how much a mother from a different species gives to help her infants make it to adulthood. Actions speak louder than words, and these incredible creatures go to the ends of the Earth to give their young a fighting chance of survival.

The amount an animal parent invests in their young is determined by genetics. A great number of species are missing the motherhood gene altogether and leave their offspring to fend for themselves from day one.

At the other end of the scale of parental investment are animals that stay by their baby’s side around the clock. Mothers like this sacrifice their own comfort and safety for the sake of their young. In extreme cases, parents stay with their grown-up children for the rest of their lives.
Just like in human parenting, there is no exact right answer. All these mothers can do is their best to provide for their young.


Lionesses raise their cubs in a commune

Groups of lions share out the work between each female, giving the pride the flexibility it needs to dominate the savannah

Everybody loves their mother, so why have just one? Lion cubs are looked after by several females within the pride to let the other mothers get on with life. Lionesses take care of the young and do most of the hunting — the males are too busy working as security. They use their bulk and bushy manes to dominate territory, putting themselves at risk of danger for the sake of the pride. As a result, females will care for cubs that belong to their group, even allowing them to suckle alongside their own offspring.

Each pride of lions has a limited number
of males, usually no more than three. These maned giants father all of the cubs within the family, and many of the infants are therefore related. These family ties are strong enough for mothers to look after other cubs as if they are their own babies.

Only around 50 per cent of lion cubs survive until adulthood, but having an entire team of parents increases those odds significantly.
Lion mothers work around the clock to ensure their babies live to see another day.


Squirrels raise abandoned babies as their own

These animals are willing to make sacrifices to raise a baby that has nowhere else to turn

A lot of animals like their space, and squirrels are solitary and territorial creatures. However, if an independent squirrel happens across an orphaned pup, it’s hard to resist. Usually this stray pup is part of the squirrel’s extended family, and the closest relatives are more likely to be adopted. It’s a rare act of kindness, and the timing has to be just right. If no nearby females are producing milk there’s no chance of salvation. Only a handful of cases have been confirmed, and all of these were related animals. A squirrel will adopt a niece, nephew, sibling or grandchild in the absence of the true mother.

Squirrel adoption is costly, and a foster mother voluntarily accepts additional responsibility. It means an extra mouth to feed, more nesting materials to collect and extra vigilance to protect the entire litter. Does this mean squirrels feel compassion? Scientists aren’t sure. Animals are programmed to pass down their own genes, and the fact that squirrels only adopt relatives could be a result of that drive. A pup belonging to a squirrel’s relative shares a significant portion of its genetic material, which may explain this behaviour.


Great hornbills seal themselves inside trees

The tropical bird that becomes a recluse to provide constant supervision

Once an expectant great hornbill has located a suitable tree hollow, she lays her two eggs and begins to construct the door with her partner. She then seals the opening with their faeces, leaving one tiny hole through which the male can offer food. The hornbill mother will spend around 40 days in her makeshift house existing on a vegan diet.

On the outside, hornbills are omnivorous and hunt everything from insects to small mammals. Females break free five weeks
after the chicks hatch but re-seal the entrance upon leaving to protect their young. The chicks require a high-sugar diet of soft fruit until 15 weeks of age, and both parents continue to provide nourishment until they reach independence.


Words: Amy Grisdale


For even more amazing animal mothers, pick up a copy of World of Animal Issue 56, in store or online!

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