Traditional Mother’s Day cards don’t usually say “You’re a total badass, Mum.”
But maybe they should.
Giving birth isn’t for sissies, after all—and some mothers go to extremes raising their offspring. This weekend, we celebrate the fierce mamas of the animal world.
An invertebrate may not pop to mind as stellar mum, but the octopus is in a league of its own.
After female octopuses lay huge amounts of eggs—sometimes in the thousands—they fan them with muscular organs called syphons, which keeps the developing babies oxygenated and free of harmful bacteria.
Not only that, octopus mums do not eat or leave the area while guarding their offspring, says Marah J. Hardt, author of Sex in the Sea.
For instance, a wild deep-sea octopus studied in Monterey Bay, California, watched over her eggs for four and a half years, the longest period ever recorded.
After the eggs hatch, the mother uses her syphon to blow them out into the open ocean.
“Then she dies,” Hardt says.
MEERKATS Young meerkats (pictured in South Africa's Kalahari Desert) learn how to handle venomous scorpions from patient moms or other family members.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIAS KLUM, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Venomous scorpions are a main food source for southern Africa’s meerkats, but it takes a while to learn how to handle the dangerous prey.
That's why mums and other family members are patient tutors to their pups, showing them how to carefully deal with the arachnids.
For instance, adults will injure scorpions, disabling their stingers, and give the still living prey to older pups for practice.
“Mums come from a variety of packages,” including aunts and other family members, notes National Geographic Books editorial manager Bridget E. Hamilton, author of the new book The Wisdom of Mums: Love and Lessons from the Animal Kingdom.
At birth, giant panda cubs are blind and “so tiny they should almost be like kangaroos in a pouch,” says Hamilton.
A MIRACLE BABY
Aside from marsupials, pandas have the largest offspring-to-parent ratio: Newborns weigh three to five ounces—about the size of a stick of butter—while mom weighs in at roughly 300 pounds. (Related: "See Which Animals Have the Most Enormous—and Tiniest—Babies.")
Caring for such a tiny, helpless infant takes a lot of effort and attention, which is why panda moms cradle their cubs almost constantly.
For instance, Mei Xiang, who lives at Smithsonian's National Zoo, was so protective of her cub in 2013 that she tried to stop keepers from examining the infant.
ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHIN Young dolphins (above, an Atlantic spotted dolphin and offpsring swim off the Bahamas' Bimini Islands) must keep up with their fast-moving mothers right from birth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN J. SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Dolphins are speedy swimmers, and their calves need to keep up right from birth. To help, bottlenose dolphin moms “create a safe passageway for their babies”: A wake that effortlessly draws the youngsters alongside their moms, Hamilton says.
Should she lose her infant, though, mum might send out her signature whistle, kind of like calling her own name.
A 2016 study showed that calves that got separated from their moms were able to find her by listening to these calls.
SPERM WHALE A sperm whale and her calf swim off Portugal. The marine mammals nurse their young for more than two years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FLIP NICKLEN, MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The blue whale has the largest heart of any animal, 400 pounds—so it's not surprising these marine mammals can be big-hearted mamas.
Sperm whales, for example, nurse their young for over two years, which is quite a commitment, says Hardt.
Whales of many species also ardently defend their calves, especially against other predatory whales.
Recently a grey whale in Monterey Bay put her calf on her back and defended herself with her tail when attacked by a pod of orcas, reports KSBW News.
While arachnids show varying degrees of parental care, the South American spider Mesabolivar aurantiacus "is a great spider mum,” Jo-Anne Sewlal, an arachnologist at the University of the West Indies, says via email.
This colourful mom-to-be “holds the egg sac constantly in her jaws until it hatches,” forgoing food until the young emerge, Sewlal says.
Wolf spider mums carry their egg sacs on their spinnerets, or silk-producing organs, for safe keeping, Sewlal says.
Once the spiderlings hatch, they ride around on her back until they're ready to moult and leave their eight-legged RV.
Header Image: GIANT PANDA Min Min cares for her tiny female baby at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China. Giant pandas have one of the biggest size differences between babies and adults, requiring around-the-clock care. PHOTOGRAPH BY AMI VITALE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE