Celebrating mothers in the animal kingdom

In celebration of Mother's Day, the RSPB takes a look at some of the animal mothers around the UK who deserve a medal for their efforts. These mothers work hard to raise their young, but they still face threats beyond their control: loss of habitat, loss of food, and climate change all have an impact on these species.  

An orca mother and calf in British Columbia, Canada. © Mark Malleson/Getty

The levels of care offered by parents by in the animal kingdom can vary greatly. At one end, it’s non-existent for the species where eggs are laid or young are birthed and are immediately left to fend for themselves in this difficult world, such as the frogspawn of common frogs, and many insects. On the other end, there are species where the young are looked after for many years by their parents. One of the most intense examples in a non-human animal species is the orangutan, where female will look after her young for eight years.

Advertisement

In between these extremes are a variety of levels of care given by parents. In celebration of Mother’s Day, the RSPB takes a look at some of the animal mothers around the UK who deserve a medal for their efforts. These mothers work hard to raise their young, but they still face threats beyond their control: loss of habitat, loss of food, and climate change all have an impact on these species.  


Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

An adult female mallard sitting by the side of a river with duckling underneath her, in Bedfordshire, UK. © Ben Andrews/RSPB Images
An adult female mallard sitting by the side of a river with duckling underneath her, in Bedfordshire, UK. © Ben Andrews/RSPB Images

Mallards may be the most common duck, but their mothering skills are pretty exceptionalAfter the eggs are laid the males go off to form small bachelor groupsand the mother is left to sit on the eggs by herself for about 28 days

Once the chicks hatch, the mother then has to get them to the nearest body of water, crossing dangerous roads and trying to protect them from predators. She’ll continue to stay by their side and teach them how to find the best food and shelter until they develop their flight feathers.  

Orca (Orcinus orca)

An orca mother and calf in British Columbia, Canada. © Mark Malleson/Getty
An orca mother and calf in British Columbia, Canada. © Mark Malleson/Getty

Baby orcas don’t sleep for the first month of their lives – so their mothers don’t sleep either! The theory is that staying awake gives the relatively small new-borns better chance of evading predators, and that the constant movement keeps their body temperature up until they develop greater mass and blubber. The mothers then stay awake as well to keep an eye on them, giving up her usual 5-8 hours of sleep a night. 

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

An adult hoopoe foraging in a paddock, in Bedfordshire, UK. © Ben Andrews/RSPB Images
An adult hoopoe foraging in a paddock, in Bedfordshire, UK. © Ben Andrews/RSPB Images

The colourful hoopoe is a rare visitor to the UK, but they do occasionally breed here and raise their young. The female lays her eggs in a tree cavity before covering them in an antimicrobial secretion that smells like rotten eggs. It’s thought that this protects the eggs against bacteria as well as making them less appealing to predators. Then when the chicks hatch, they add to the smell by projectile pooping to ward off predators! 

Common earwig (Forficula auricularia)

A female common earwig with her eggs. © Tim Shepherd/Getty
A female common earwig with her eggs. © Tim Shepherd/Getty

Insects aren’t normally considered top contenders for motherhood, but the earwig stands out. A mother earwig looks after her larvae throughout the winter until they shed their first skin, which is very unusual maternal behaviour for a non-social insect. She also chews up food for her young and will relocate her entire family if she senses danger.  

Common crane (Grus grus)

The Aberdeenshire 'supermum' female crane with her chick, 2016. © Hywel Maggs
The Aberdeenshire ‘supermum’ female crane with her chick, 2016. © Hywel Maggs

Sometimes it’s an individual rather than a species who stands out, as with a mother crane in Aberdeenshire back in 2016. When this crane’s chick was just five weeks old her mate disappeared. This was a huge blow – normally, both the mother and father care for the chick from the moment the egg is laid until the moment it learns to fly. 

They work together to protect the chick from all sorts of dangers, from flooding to foxes, and chicks still frequently don’t make it. This particular mother managed to raise her chick all by herself, however, and at the end of the season both mother and son were able to fly off on migration. Go mum! 

The common crane’s scientific name, Grus grus, is an example of a tautonym where the genus and specific name are the same. The common crane is also known as the Eurasian crane.

Pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus genus)

Common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle held in palm of hand of a licensed ecologist in Norfolk, UK. © Mike Powles/Getty
Common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle held in palm of hand of a licensed ecologist in Norfolk, UK. © Mike Powles/Getty

Bats are somewhat unusual in the mammal world in that they don’t make a nest – instead, the females all stick together in colonies for safety and warmth. Each female also only has one baby, or pup, each year, which is unusual for a mammal of her size (typically with mammals, the smaller they are the more babies they have).

But having just one pup means she can give it all of her attention! Over the next month she’ll focus all her efforts on feeding it and keeping it warm, and even after it leaves the colony to forage for itself the mum often stays close by to teach it how to hunt and survive.

There are two very similar species of pipistrelle bat found in the UK: common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). They were only identified as separate species in the 1990s, and the easiest way to tell them apart is by the frequency of their echolocation calls.

The common pipistrelle’s scientific name, Pipistrellus pipistrellus, is an example of a tautonym where the genus and specific name are the same.

Ladybird spider (Eresus sandaliatus)

An adult female ladybird spider with eggs and hatchling spiderlings in Dorset, UK. © Ian Hughes/RSPB Images
An adult female ladybird spider with eggs and hatchling spiderlings in Dorset, UK. © Ian Hughes/RSPB Images

The ladybird spider (named after the male’s patterning, pictured below) is very rare in the UK and has a particularly self-sacrificing approach to motherhood. After mating she lays up to 80 eggs, wrapping them up in silk and sealing them in with her in a kind of nursery chamber.

They hatch after about a month and she’ll soon after makes the ultimate sacrifice – liquifying her internal organs and regurgitating them to feed her spiderlings the nutritious fluid from her mouth. She dies after about two weeks, knowing that she’s given her young the best chance for survival.

An adult male ladybird spider on mossy heathland in Dorset, UK. © Ian Hughes/RSPB Images
An adult male ladybird spider on mossy heathland in Dorset, UK. © Ian Hughes/RSPB Images

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus)

A great crested newt on moss in spring. © Sandra Standbridge/Getty
A great crested newt on moss in spring. © Sandra Standbridge/Getty

Female great crested newts lay an incredible 200-300 eggs between March and June, usually two to three a day. But laying them isn’t the hardest part – after laying them she’ll use her hind legs and feet to wrap every single individual egg in leaves or overhanging vegetation (you can keep an eye out for these by looking for a “concertina” effect).

She’ll also surround them with a sticky substance that makes sure the leaf stays surround around the egg – this protects it from both UV damage and from predators. After a few weeks, depending on the temperature, the eggs will hatch, and a new generation of newst will be born.

European eel (Anguilla anguilla)

European eel elvers swimming in Devon, UK. © Rodger Jackman/Getty
European eel elvers swimming in Devon, UK. © Rodger Jackman/Getty

While European eels aren’t the most maternal of species once their young are born, they undertake one of the biggest migrations in the world to spawn, surely earning them a rank among nature’s best mothers. They start their lives in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda, before floating across the Atlantic in the Gulf stream. This takes two to three years.

They then stay in freshwaters around Europe for the next few years of their lives, putting on weight and growing into mature adults. At that point they head back out again into the Atlantic, traveling thousands of miles back to their birthplace to spawn – at which point they die, leaving the next generation to continue the cycle.

Advertisement

The European eel’s scientific name, Anguilla anguilla, is an example of a tautonym where the genus and specific name are the same.