Maybe you had a very protective mother. Or a strict mother. (Or a neurotic one.)
You’d have nothing on the animal world, where mothers in the wild are known to nurse their young for several years, or sacrifice their own limbs to protect them — or drink their babies’ blood. (It’s true.)
This Mother’s Day, we’re taking a look at a few of the more unusual mothering habits in the animal kingdom.
1. Chew on baby, drink blood, regurgitate. Repeat.
With a name like “Dracula ant,” it’s probably no surprise that the species’ signifying characteristic is its predilection for feeding on the blood of its young. Fifteen years ago in a pile of rotting leaves in Madagascar, an entomologist discovered the species and their unique feeding style. Unlike most ants which practice “social food transfer” behavior — each colony’s workers sharing food and carrying it to the queen — Dracula ants opt for “nondestructive cannibalism.” Worker ants scratch the skin of the larvae in their own colony’s nursery, making them bleed; then they chew on the larvae, drink the blood and regurgitate it to the queen — leaving the larvae alive, but scarred (probably in more ways than one). Since the original discovery, six species of Dracula ants have been discovered.
2. Giving an arm and a leg (or a tentacle) for your children.
Ever the overachiever, the female octopus can lay up to hundreds of thousands of eggs in one go. Over the eggs’ development period — anywhere from 40 days to 53 months in the case of one record-breaking species, Graneledone boreopacifica — these maternal cephalopods gently blow water currents over the eggs to provide them with oxygen and keep them clean. Unwilling to leave her brood to hunt for food, the mother octopus often resorts to eating one or two of her own tentacles for sustenance while waiting for them to hatch.
3. And you thought triplets were a handful.
The common tenrec (a hedgehog-like insectivore with a round head, elongated snout and rows of sharp spines and hairs) scurries around Madagascar and the Comoro Islands largely avoiding other members of its species. For female tenrecs, there are two exceptions to this behavior — the annual mating season and tending to the resulting litter. This litter can include up to 32 tiny, striped offspring that follow their mother in single file as they forage for food and nest materials. Geography plays a role in the size of the litter: 15 is the average in most rainforest areas, while the numbers bump up to 20 in savanna regions.
4. So. Many. Diapers.
Some moms insist on curfews. Others — like dominant marmoset and tamarin moms — prevent female relatives from reproducing using intimidation and an ovulation-stopping pheromone. In addition to intense female reproductive competition and suppression, these small-bodied monkey moms get pregnant — a lot. As Anthony Rylands, senior research scientist at Conservation International (CI) and deputy chairman of the Primate Specialist Group, explains: “Female marmosets and tamarins have a postpartum estrus (a recurring period of sexual receptivity and fertility) — they can conceive again shortly after giving birth. When healthy, the female consistently produces large fraternal twins every five to six months — each 10-12% of the mother’s weight.”
All of this is a lot for one mother monkey to take on alone, so she relies on the rest of the team to pick up the slack: “Being pregnant and lactating at the same time and carrying two infants is altogether too much for a small primate that has to climb and jump in the trees and be agile enough to catch insects, so the father has to invest in the infants by carrying them as well,” Rylands said. “In fact. all members of the family help. If there is more than one male in the group (not her sons) the female mates with them; they then think they might be the father and so help by carrying the infants and giving them insect morsels when they are being weaned.” Thank goodness for babysitters.
5. There’s nesting — and then there’s nesting.
In building and maintaining her nest, the American alligator mama is also determining the gender of her children. At two to three meters (7–10 feet) in diameter, the nest is home to 35 to 50 eggs for their 65-day incubation period. The temperature of the nest rises during that time, settling the sex of the alligator babies: Eggs above 33.8° C (93° F) are male, below 30° C (86° F) are female, and temperatures in between produce both sexes. As they prepare to hatch, the baby alligators emit high-pitched noises from within their shells, alerting their mother that they’re ready for her to remove their cozy vegetation blanket. Once released, young alligators are highly susceptible to predation, and only about 20% survive — thanks to the efforts of their fiercely protective mothers.
6. What’s the opposite of a “helicopter mom”?
Imagine an underground den filled with a tight cluster of blind, newborn rabbit kits. More than 12 hours have passed, and there’s no mother rabbit to be found. No, she hasn’t been eaten by a fox — she’s just being your average rabbit mother, leaving her fluffy, helpless litter by itself all day. Except for two brief pockets of time when she returns to feed and lick them, the female rabbit has almost nothing to do with her offspring from the moment she gives birth to them, right up to their one-month birthday, after which they are out on their own. In reality, she is leaving the babies for their own protection — quietly hidden in their underground den, out of sight (and smell) of hungry predators.
7. When your child forgets to call you … again.
On the scale of one to intense, orangutans are second only to humans in the relationships forged between mother and child. Will Turner, chief scientist of CI’s Moore Center for Science, expounds: “Orangutans are a great example that looks a lot like human parenting. Newborns are very dependent on mom for a couple of years, and then mother and offspring stay in close contact for years as the juvenile slowly learns the ways of the world.”
Orangutans give birth only every seven or eight years, with good reason: They’re busy nursing (yes — the entire time), carrying and teaching their child survival skills. Turner explains that this close bond is “one of the things that makes it very hard to rescue orangs and raise them to release back into the wild, and so tragic that so many lose their parents and habitat in places like Borneo. Not only is there increasingly less forest for them to go back to, but the process of raising them to adulthood takes so long and depends on re-creating the role in raising young that the mother does so extraordinarily well.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.