Happy Mother’s Day 2022! They care for us, teach us, and shape our relationship with each other and with the world. For better or worse, each of us owes a lot of who we are to our moms!
And as much as we all love to celebrate motherhood on this holiday, there is one mother that is ever-present and that unifies us, no matter what our circumstances: Mother Nature.
The wild ways that nature operates to keep this world spinning never fails to inspire. And, just like our human mothers, we often take her for granted. Lest we forget that our lives depend on her and her bounty, we at The Optimist Daily welcome opportunities to be amazed by her splendor. Now, more than ever, Mother Nature needs our love and protection. And so, in honor of Mother’s Day 2022, several of our team members got together to highlight the mind-blowing mothers in nature that each finds most fascinating. From sea otters to octopuses, from orangutans to penguins, please join us on this journey that spans the species divide.
Arielle’s pick: The Graneledone Boreopacifica
The mother I’ve chosen to celebrate this Mother’s Day is the Graneledone boreopacifica, a deep-sea dwelling octopus.
There’s been quite a lot of buzz around octopuses in recent years, probably due to their increased visibility in the media through releases like My Octopus Teacher (2020) and even the Disney-Pixar film Finding Dory (2016), in which Hank the Octopus plays a moving supporting role.
Most of what’s known about octopuses and their life cycle come from the species that reside in shallower waters—but very little is known about their deep-sea counterparts. A shallow-water octomoms lays her eggs and tends to them until they hatch before she dies, a fate that most female octopuses sign up for once they begin their parental journey. This brooding period can last anywhere from one to three months.
However, the Graneledone boreopacifica moms down in the dark depths of the ocean brood for an astonishing four-and-a-half years. That’s 53 months— the longest brooding time of any animal on earth.
If that wasn’t already impressive enough, this deepwater octomom isn’t just sitting on top of her eggs. She has to be vigilant in guarding her brood against hungry crabs and other predators who would love to have a yummy octopus-flavored morsel. She is also continuously ensuring that her precious octobabies are constantly fed a fresh supply of oxygenated water, and are kept clean and clear of silt. And get this—she very likely does all of this without eating. I can’t even walk my dog without rummaging around in the snack cupboard first.
Talk about dedication and the ultimate sacrifice! Over the years, the female octopus loses weight and her ability to see and becomes paler and paler while each of her approximately 160 translucent teardrop-shaped eggs gets bigger and stronger.
Once she feels her eggs hatch beneath her, the Graneledone boreopacifica mom knows her job is done, and she dies, completely starved and depleted of energy. But because deep-sea octomom spends so much time quite literally giving her life up for her young, the newborn Graneledone boreopacifica are more developed than the hatchlings of any other octopus or squid. They come out completely ready to hunt tiny prey and survive on their own.
Summers’ pick: Lions and Elephants
Many modern mothers feel isolated, unsupported, lonely, and unprepared for the task of providing for their new family. As a society, with a focus on suburbanization and independent family units, we have abandoned one of the most critical resources for a vibrant society: connecting mothers and children to their communities. And yet, if we take a moment to look at the structures of some of my favorite creatures, we realize that motherhood was never meant to be a solo act. Supermoms work together to protect, provide, and love.
Lions have greatly been misrepresented in storytelling with a focus on the patriarchy led by a solo king. Lion prides rely predominantly on female lions who hunt and raise their cubs as a team. I once witnessed in person, while on safari in Tanzania, four lionesses and five young cubs hunting. Lionesses begin teaching cubs to hunt at three months old. Three of the lionesses focused on the prey while one stayed near to where they had hidden the cubs in tall grass. It was a sisterhood, a lesson, a collaboration, and a success.
Lion cubs remain with their pride and under the care of their mothers, older sisters, and aunties until they are at least sixteen months old and many female cubs remain in the same pride for the entirety of their lives. A lion pride is made up of 20 or so female lions and their cubs and two adult male lions. These mother-led communities rely on one another to protect their cubs from predatory and jealous male lions. A mother will fight for her cub and her sisters’ cubs whom she has helped to raise with equal ferociousness.
Perhaps the greatest matriarchy and representation of collaborative mothering is that of elephants. In this inspiring structure an older, experienced female leads the herd with a family of her sisters, all of their daughters, and the calves. Elephants are pregnant for nearly two years and when the calf arrives is immediately cared for by their mom and their Allomothers.
Allomothers are the community of sisters, aunties, and grandmothers that make up an elephant herd. These gracious giants mother for some of the longest periods of all the world’s creatures and do so with patience and teamwork. Calves stay with their mothers and their herd for many years, with many daughters staying with their mothers their entire lives and sons leaving after twelve to fifteen years to either roam alone or join a loosely knit bull herd.
Elephant mothers and Allomothers rock calves to sleep. Yes, they actually do what we watched so long ago in Dumbo. Disney got that part right. With high levels of emotional intelligence, they are often seen hugging, kissing, nuzzling, and leading their little ones with their tails and trunks attached. Elephant moms also know that their children all have different personalities and allow them to learn from their other herd sisters, creating multigenerational bonds that enhance the strength of the community.
The sisterhood of an elephant herd is incomparable and has reminded me of my own motherhood journey to develop strong bonds with others and allow them to inspire and teach my cubs all they know.
Kristy’s Pick: Mother Trees
One of the most astounding reassessments in how we understand nature since the dawn of the scientific era (right up there with the recalibration of the solar system that demoted the Earth from the center of the universe), is the recent revelation that trees are not distinct, inert sources of raw materials, but rather socially interconnected beings, in communication and communion with other trees, plants, insects, animals and the fungal network that undergirds the forest floor. In the center of each forest community are Mother Trees – the oldest, tallest trees in the forest that become nodes of resources and wisdom shared with their direct offspring as well as other interdependent species in the forest. In effect they play a parental role towards their saplings and the other step-child trees and plants that live in the shadow of their branches, employing mycorrhizal couriers to share knowledge, nutrients, and water and help them all thrive.
That’s why this Mother’s Day, I am choosing to write about Mother Trees.
Richard Power’s 2019 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, features a character based on the brilliant Suzanne Simard, who has pioneered an entire field that studies forests as living organisms. Her 2021 memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, is infinitely compelling, and articulates the origins of her understanding of the complexity of forest ecology, as well as the formerly heretical view that a forest is best conceived as an integrated whole. The book exposes the fallacy of the dominance model of forestry: the idea that a tree will best thrive in sterile dirt as long as it’s given ample water and sunlight. In reading Simard’s book, this notion becomes about as absurd as believing that humans will thrive in solitary confinement as long as they have three square meals and a bed to lay on.
Simard’s insight that forests are alive, and that the ancient trees at the center of the forest ecology are wise Mothers to be cherished, echoes the indigenous wisdom of aboriginal humans from all corners of the Earth. It was a quirk of nature that she somehow heard the wisdom of the forest and has built a life and a career around sharing that knowledge to help the modern world reawaken to the regenerative power of Mother Trees, especially as the climate changes. In 2015 she began the Mother Tree Project – an organization and an experiment that seeks to keep Mother Trees in place in various climatic regions of British Columbia to investigate how these techniques might lead to forest renewal and help protect biodiversity, carbon storage, and forest regeneration as the climate changes. She invites us all to get involved.
Oliver’s Pick: The Sea Otter
Maybe it’s because their lives look like one long aquatic frolic split up by lazy floating naps, or maybe it’s how they hold hands when they sleep so they don’t float away from each other, but sea otters are the frontrunner for cutest marine mammals… Scratch that, cutest sea animal period.
They also happen to exemplify key and often overlooked aspects of parenthood, which is why I made them my Mother’s Day pick.
They are industrious creatures that keep rocks in pockets under their arms to later break open clams or mussels on their stomachs. They have some of the thickest fur in the world. If you tried to part the hair with your fingers or a comb, you would never be able to see down to their skin. Yet, one of the most impressive things about them is what amazing parents they make.
Well, the mothers are, anyway.
Sea otter moms have a lot of work to do until their pup is ready to swim, dive, and hunt on its own. The mother basically does everything with her pup on her stomach. While this might look relaxing the way otters just float along on their backs with their pups on their stomach, keep in mind that the mom is also feeding this pup and propelling herself with the extra weight, sometimes out on the open ocean and over waves. Then it comes time to get the food. For that, mom has to dive down and hunt for clams or sea urchins. So, before she does that, she finds a bed of seaweed and wraps her pup up in it, nice and snug, as a kind of all-natural cradle. Sea otter moms have even been known to innovate around human docks and boatyards and place their pups on the backs of ships as an ad hoc daycare while she goes down and brings home the mussels.
Before you think that this is simply biological maternal instinct kicking in, sea otters have been known to display incredibly sophisticated levels of compassion for each other in the form of sea otter step-parenting. Researchers have observed mother sea otters taking in abandoned or lost pups and caring for them like they are their own.
Maternal instinct is incredible, but stepping up and devoting one’s energy and resources to a child that’s not their own is the next level in care. I say it deserves applause when a creature of any species takes on the responsibility of step-parenthood, so Brava, you kind sea otter stepmothers!
Belle’s Pick: The Emperor Penguin
Emperor penguins are one of the most iconic birds on the planet– their yellow-tinted chests and orange beaks make them instantly recognizable. There is also a remarkable instance of specialized parental roles with these birds, as it is the father who does most of the babysitting. Once the egg is laid, the father has himself a nice sit while the mothers of the species venture into the wild, traveling up to 50 miles to hunt for their future child’s food in the ocean.
As if it wasn’t enough to brave the Antarctic seas in search of baby food, these fearless moms perfectly time their return with the hatching of their chicks. They use magnetic fields, stars, and the sun to schedule their arrival back to the colony when their offspring are hatching and hungry for breakfast. That’s some punctual parenting if you ask me.
Victor’s Pick: The Orangutan
The affectionate bond between an orangutan mother and her child is one of the strongest in nature. That’s perhaps because young orangutans spend up to eight years of their lives with their mothers to learn how to survive and thrive in their natural habitat, in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, Indonesia. The first two years are particularly important as the infants rely entirely on their moms for food and transportation.
Over the next few years, the mothers teach their offspring how to move between the trees, how to explore the forest for food, as well as how to build a sleeping nest. With time, the orangutan mothers tend to change their behavior according to the age and abilities of their offspring. As their infants grow, the mothers help them less and less with the ultimate intent of nudging them to become independent as quickly as possible.
The strength of the mother-child relationship is also reflected by the fact that female orangutans tend to “visit” their moms until they reach the age of 15 or 16. Just like humans, orangutans raise their youngsters with love and care until they develop into young adults that can fend for themselves.
Animal behavior can often illustrate emotions and concepts better than words. Learning about these magnificent creatures, we see the care that our own mothers put into raising us, and how lucky we are to have them. Just by existing, we all took part in the beauty that is a mother-child relationship, yet another natural gift of this world.
This Mother’s Day, we’d like to thank all the mothers out there, including the mothers on our staff, and of every species, these beings of fierce love who ultimately give parts of their lifeforce to birth, protect, and raise their children. It goes without saying we wouldn’t be here without you, but we also wouldn’t be who we are without you.
There’s no way to thank you for all you give us, but all the same…
Thanks, Mom, and happy Mother’s Day!