Glorious moms of the animal kingdom

Story highlights

  • Carl Safina: Motherhood is a greater enterprise on Earth than we often realize in the pageantry of life
  • In the animal kingdom, especially among elephants and whales, the mothers are nothing short of amazing

Carl Safina holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, where he runs The Safina Center. This piece is adapted from his upcoming book, "Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel," which will be published by Henry Holt Co. in July. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Four mother elephants are keeping their rotund babies in the shade of their bodies as they lead them across a sweet-smelling grassland under an already-hot early equatorial sun. Striding with deliberate purpose as though keeping an appointment, the mothers are nodding toward a wide wet marsh. They stop at water's edge; it's difficult to nurse while belly-deep in marsh sedges and water, so before plunging in for the morning, they fill up their youngsters. Who knew? The mothers knew.

Carl Safina
I'm in a vehicle with researchers Katito Saiyalel and Vicki Fishlock of the nonprofit Amboseli Trust in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. An elephant named Tecla, walking just a few yards ahead to our right, suddenly turns, trumpets and generally objects to us. To our left, a young elephant wheels and screams. It seems we have separated this mother from her baby. But another female, her two breasts full of milk, runs in, cutting just in front of us. She is actually the mother. Tecla was communicating, basically, 'The humans are getting between you and your baby; come and do something.' Mother rejoins baby, restoring order. All proceed.
Behold the mothers of others.
    When the vervet monkeys around camp hear an infant's distress call, they instantly look to the infant's mother. They understand precisely who is important to whom.
    When a free-living Atlantic spotted dolphin named Luna got separated from her days-old infant in murky water in the presence of a large tiger shark, research scientist Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, wrote, "I had never heard a mother more vocally distressed." These mothers know exactly who they are.
    A senior female elephant, her sisters, their adult daughters, and all their children live together as a family. The family is the foundation for shared infant care and child-rearing. Usually the oldest female serves as prime holder of living history and knowledge.
    This über-mom, or matriarch, manages decisions about where the family will go, when, and for how long. She's the family's rallying point and chief protector. And her personality — calm, nervous, firm, indecisive, bold — sets the whole family's tone. (Adolescent males leave families, consorting with other males, sometimes wandering.) For months the mother keeps her infant in range of her touch, often in physical contact. She frequently makes soft, humming sounds to her infant, saying, in effect, "Here I am; I'm right here."
    These babies we're watching are fat, as if overindulged. In elephants as in humans -- experience matters. A teenager is more likely to get into difficulties than a 40-year-old. Fishlock emphasizes, "Older elephants are fantastic mothers. They know what's going on, and they're superchill."
    Morning heat begins hurrying the elephants into the quenching wetland. But matriarchs pace travel to the youngest. No child gets left behind.
    In 1990 in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, the elephant Echo gave birth to a baby who could not straighten his forelegs, could barely nurse. He shuffled painfully slowly on his wrists, frequently collapsing. Officials discussed shortening his misery.
    For three days as the exhausted infant hobbled along, Echo slowed the family's pace to his disabilities, continually turning to watch the little one's progress, waiting as he caught up from behind, patiently raising him when he fell.
    On the third day, he leaned back until he could put his bent front soles on the ground, then, wrote researcher Cynthia Moss, "carefully and ever so slowly he transferred his weight back towards the front end of his body and straightened all four legs." He never looked back. His family's steadfastness — which in humans we might call faith — had saved him.
    Half a planet over, in a different realm, I visit another mammal living in the most maternally oriented society on Earth: the Pacific Northwest's fish-eating killer whales.
    In Ken Balcomb's Center for Whale Research boat, I'm meeting the L-pod; Ken knows them all on sight. L-25, a female, is now more than 85 years old. This high-finned adult male with the nick halfway up his dorsal's leading edge is L-41; he's 36 years old.
    Like elephants, the basic social unit is a senior matriarch leading her children and grandchildren. And though adolescent male elephants leave their family; male killer whales stay in their birth family for their entire life. (Males mate when socializing with other families, then return to mama's side.) Mother-child bonds remain strong, lifelong. In no other creature do all children — daughters and sons — stay with their mother all her life.
    As with elephants, a killer whale matriarch has memorized the family's survival manual, maintaining knowledge of the routes and islands, of places and seasons where salmon concentrate. Her decision might relocate her family; they swim 75 miles a day.
    Like humans, killer whales generally stop giving birth in their 40s and can live more than twice that long. Only human, killer whale, and short-finned pilot whale females routinely live decades after they stop breeding.
    In a word: menopause. Up to a quarter of females in a killer whale group are post-reproductive. These whales are not waiting to die; they're helping their children and grandchildren survive. Short-finned pilot whales continue to produce milk for up to 15 years after their last birth.
    Toothmarks on a recent J-pod newborn suggest that another killer whale actually acted as midwife, pulling the infant from its mother. Multiple female killer whales help push a newborn up for its first breath. Even in the sea, it takes a village.
    Killer whale mothers are so crucial to their children's survival that when a senior killer whale female dies, her adult children start dying at high rates, especially sons. Male killer whales older than 30 when their mothers die face death rates eight times as high as males in their age group whose mothers remain alive. The extra food required by their immense size seems to make them reliant on their working mothers, who share about half their catch with their children.
    The matriarch J-2 is now more than 100 years old. Her son J-1 lived to be 60, the oldest male on record.
    Even if your mother isn't an elephant or a whale — you know what I mean — it takes mothers of all kinds to perpetuate the chain of being.
    Motherhood is a greater, more sacred enterprise on Earth than we often realize. So let's take a moment now to reflect on motherhood writ large. Let us praise and thank our mothers and the mothers of others, for nothing less than the pageant of life.