To celebrate Mother’s Day, Ann and Steve Toon pay homage to a few of Africa’s marvellous animal mums
rotecting, nurturing, teaching, building a close bond, then letting go when the time comes; such skills are not simply the preserve of human beings when it comes to raising offspring. Look no further than the African plains for a reminder of the exceptional lengths to which an animal mother will go to keep its young safe; the fierce defence she will make in the face of any threat, and the time and patience she’ll invest to prepare them for survival as an adult in the wild.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s worth remembering there are some marvellous mothers out there in the animal kingdom too. But just like mothers everywhere, life becomes that little bit easier when you can call on an extra bit of help…
Cheetahs raise their cubs alone without the help of a mate or other females. And compared to many other species they certainly put in the hours when it comes to teaching their offspring the specialist skills they’ll need to go it alone, or to work in coalition with a small band of other cheetahs in adulthood.
Cheetah cubs stay with their mother for as long as 18 months until they’re fully ready to go off and hunt for themselves. When they’re tiny a cheetah mum will painstakingly move her litter of two to six cubs every few days to prevent predators from picking up their scent.
But as soon as they’re strong enough the cubs will follow their mother as she hunts, keeping a watchful distance while they learn the ropes. This tireless training regime doesn’t always go to plan. Impatient or over-excited cubs often break cover and spoil a hunt that’s in progress. In the end, learning the hard way is all part of the protracted training period. To give them encouragement from about six months on a cheetah mum will often bring small live prey back for her offspring to hone their skills and practise on.
Unlike cheetahs, lionesses often have some handy help raising their youngsters. That’s because other lactating females in the pride will willingly suckle the cubs of other mothers, often their sisters, after feeding their own offspring.
Cubs’ chances of survival are highest where several females in the pride give birth around the same time and can support each other within this ‘nursery’ set-up. Even so, lion cubs are very vulnerable in the first two months of life. To keep small cubs safe, a lioness will cache her cubs, often leaving them hidden for over 24 hours. It might seem negligent to us that the mother leaves them for so long, but her babies are too small to keep up with the pride at this stage and would be extremely vulnerable to attack by other predators, or even a male lion looking to take over the pride.
The cubs stay hidden, and, if disturbed, will crawl into the nearest hiding hole or seek deeper cover to avoid detection. If the mother needs to move them, she’ll often carry them in her mouth – sometimes for quite long distances. We followed one lioness with two small cubs who delicately carried a cub in her mouth as she walked for several kilometres.
A male may kill any cubs when he takes over a pride, so he can mate with the females and further his own genes. Where several mothers in the pride are raising their cubs together, it’s easier for them to defend the youngsters against such infanticide by a male. When males are threatening to take control of a pride it’s fascinating to see how aggressive and fiercely intimidating a protective lion mum can be.
You can also find amazing levels of co-operation when it comes to raising youngsters in meerkat society. In a meerkat clan the alpha female is usually the only member allowed to breed so she’s often the only mother in the group. She’s fortunate in enlisting the help of several baby-sitters – non-breeding adults of both sexes within the clan who pull together to safeguard and provide food for her young. The helpers stay home at the burrow minding her very small pups so she’s able to go out and spend enough time foraging to sustain a good milk supply for her babies.
As a socially dominant clan member, the alpha female’s behaviour might seem ruthless given the extreme lengths to which she’ll go to stop other females raising their own young, even throwing them out of the group.
But relying on others is arguably a beneficial parenting strategy because it means she can be sure her existing babies thrive while she’s able to keep herself in prime condition to produce yet more healthy young in the future.
If some of the most successful African animal mums are the ones that get a bit of support in raising their young, then elephant mothers must surely be up there with the best.
Elephant society is built around breeding groups of related females led by an older mother or matriarch in which mothers, aunts, cousins and sisters all chip in to nurture, protect and care for the youngsters in the herd.
Because elephants live for a long time, they can afford to have a long gestation period (two years) and spend up to three years nursing their infants and building a strong bond with their offspring. Even when her baby is weaned, an elephant mum will stay close to her calf for life.
If you’re lucky enough to watch a breeding elephant herd for any time you’ll notice how, despite their lumbering size, elephant mothers are remarkable gentle; tenderly deploying that powerful muscular trunk to guide a floundering baby in the right direction, offer a reassuring pat or simply to help shove it up a steep bank where it’s struggling to get a foothold. And should a baby in the herd get into difficulty you’ll often see the other mothers, aunts and sisters rallying round to aid in its rescue.
All photographs copyright Ann and Steve Toon.