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.