Published: May 6, 2016

Seven Animal Moms Almost as Good as Yours

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations


The things they do to keep their species going—whether they’ve got two legs or eight, moms are pretty amazing.

Kiwi moms are good eggs

This little ball of fluff is a newly-hatched kiwi. It’s a lot more developed than many other newborn birds, and that’s thanks to the work its mom puts into the egg. Kiwis hatch from eggs that are one-fifth the size of their mothers’ bodies—the highest egg-to-maternal weight ratio in the world. Producing such big eggs is hard work—during the last few days before the female kiwi lays her egg, there’s not much room for anything else in her body, so she has to go without food. At least once she lays it, she gets a little break—kiwis mate for life, and the dad incubates the egg. But she’s not off the hook for long, since kiwis lay up to six eggs every year.

It takes a colony to raise a naked mole-rat

Naked mole-rats are weird. They don’t feel pain, they don’t get cancer, and they live in a hive-like social structure with a queen, like ants and honeybees. The queen’s whole job is to reproduce, and it’s a competitive field—when the old queen dies, the potential new queens violently fight for the role. But after giving birth to a large litter (up to 28 pups, and up to five litters per year) and nursing them for a month, the other workers in the colony take over the job of helping raise the young—including feeding them specialized feces until they’re ready to eat solid food. So that’s… nice?

Oviraptor moms got a bad name—literally

When paleontologists in the 1920s discovered dinosaur nests in China’s Gobi Desert, they figured the eggs must have belonged to the most common dinosaurs in the area, little Triceratops-related herbivores called Protoceratops. When they found small, two-legged dinosaurs on top of the nests, they assumed that they must have been there to steal the Protoceratops’ eggs and named them Oviraptor (“egg thief”). It wasn’t until the 1990s when scientists found one of these eggs with a baby dinosaur inside—a baby Oviraptor, to be precise. The Oviraptors weren’t skulking around trying to steal eggs, they were just nesting. But the rules of scientific naming meant that these moms are stuck being branded as egg thieves—some reward for parental care.

Octomoms brave the longest brooding period in the animal kingdom

Deep-sea missions to the Northern Pacific revealed just how committed octopus moms are. Scientists made repeated dives to check on a Graneledone boreopacifica octopus (they recognized her by a scar on her arm) guarding her eggs. She spent over four and a half years protecting her eggs—the longest brooding/pregnancy time for any animal on earth. Octopuses lay eggs just once in their lives, so if anything happened to the clutch, it would have been catastrophic. The mother apparently spent every second of those four and a half years caring for her eggs, never leaving, even to get food. But all that hard work pays off—once the babies hatch, they're the most well-developed young octopuses known.

Snails give up their shells for their young

Many land snail moms are also dads—they’re hermaphroditic, so each individual can produce both eggs and sperm. In some species of snails, when a “mother” lays eggs, they’re stored in a pocket of the snail’s shell. That pocket, or umbilical cavity, if you want to be fancy, is built up over time, growing a little as each whorl is added to the snail’s shell. The opening to this cavity is a lot narrower than the cavity itself, so when the eggs hatch, the young are trapped. The only way out is to chew their way through the parent’s shell. The parent survives the process, but it can never reproduce again, since the hole in its shell can’t be repaired.

Gulp… motherhood is hard work

Red hump eartheaters (which, by the way, is our new favorite insult) get their name for the way they scoop up mouthfuls of sand and sift for organic matter to eat, but their mouths also make pretty good nurseries. They’re mouthbrooders—the female gathers up fertilized eggs in her mouth for weeks until they’ve hatched and are able to swim on their own. (She doesn’t eat during that time.) And not only does the mom let her young use her mouth as a nest, but she also keeps an eye on them after they’ve hatched, ushering them back into her mouth to hide when predators are near. You can see an eartheater mom in action in this video at 2:50.

Turtle ant moms—almost too close for comfort

Okay, buckle up—this is one of those stories that remind us that life is amazing, beautiful--and kinda gross. So, us animals have other, smaller organisms living in our guts that help us digest food and whatnot (like the bacteria in probiotic yogurt). Humans pick up these helpful bacteria during birth when we pass through the birth canal. Turtle ants have beneficial relationships with the bacteria in their guts too, and when young ants emerge from their pupa state (kind of like a cocoon), they need to get those bacteria somehow. The answer? Oral-anal trophallaxis—basically, the young ants lick their moms’ butts to get the microorganisms they need to survive. (It’s good to be close to your mom, but hopefully you’re not that close.)