30 of the Best and Worst Animal Moms on the Planet
Motherhood in the wild looks different from one species to the next — drastically different. That’s because animals have all kinds of amazing in-born habits and modes of survival that impact how they care (or don’t care) for their young.
When it comes to parenting in nature, it can be ultra-adorable or downright unpleasant. Some animal moms coddle, while others take a “sink or swim” approach, literally abandoning their offspring shortly after birth. Of course, that’s how things go in the wild. Because when it comes to parenting, just like with humans, it comes from our natural-born instincts.
Here are 30 of the best and worst animal moms.
Known for their similarities to humans, it’s not surprising that chimpanzees make loving mothers. They dote on their babies, just like us, nursing them and showing them the ways of the world. In fact, they have a similar gestation period as humans (between eight and nine months), but their babies often nurse for up to five years!
They share food with their infants, groom them, and if a baby chimp tragically dies, they can be seen grieving just like humans, too. When a baby chimp was fatally attacked in front of a crowd at the L.A. zoo in 2012, the mother chimp, Gracie, was given a room alone to mourn. She was seen cradling the baby for two days before the zoo staff took the little one from her.
Best: Emperor Penguins
While their modes of survival are quite different, emperor penguins still make good moms, even though they aren’t exactly doting. After laying an egg, the mother leaves it to travel far and wide, sometimes up to 50 miles, leaving the egg in the care of a male penguin.
The reason for the trek? To find food. When she returns, it’s just in time to feed the regurgitated fish to her new babies who are freshly hatched. It’s not the fanciest first meal, but surely the baby penguins are glad to have mom back to keep them safe and warm.
Best: Polar Bears
It’s no question where the term “mama bear” comes from. Lots of kinds of bears are fiercely protective moms. But polar bears are even more interesting because, while they all mate, only the chubbiest bears actually conceive — a process called delayed implantation, which helps ensure the female bears are strong enough for gestation. When the cubs are born they are blind and essentially helpless, relying on mom for everything.
So, mama bears fight off predators, like male bears who are larger. But even after their offspring are no longer babies, mom and cub stick together. Typically, they spend two or three years together. In that time, the mother bear teaches her young survival skills like hunting and how to migrate. The cubs only leave when it’s time for the mother bear to mate again and the new male bear scares them off.
While we perceive alligators to be pretty frightening creatures, they aren’t terrible moms, which proves different from most reptiles who usually abandon their babies (or even eat them!) Not mama alligator.
She lays about 10 to 50 eggs and takes good care of them, keeping them in a warm, covered nest, which she stays close to in an effort to protect them from predators. Then, she carries either the hatched alligator babies or the still unhatched eggs to the water, gently in her toothy mouth. After the babies are born, she still doesn’t leave them. They stay together for up to two years.
Elephant moms are pregnant for two years. That alone earns them a spot on the best animal mom list. But while they are huge, intrusive-looking animals, they are wonderful nurturers. They nurse their babies for two to three years, and baby elephants drink a ton. OK, not an actual ton, but a lot — about 20 pints of milk a day!
Not only that, elephant moms stay with their babies and travel together for their entire lives. How’s that for a doting mother?
Another animal with an epic pregnancy is the giraffe, which is pregnant for 15 months. Soon after birth, the calf is already on its feet, and the mother cares for it right away, licking any fluid off the baby. The calf nurses for about nine to 12 months.
When the mother goes to find food, she hides her baby or leaves it with other giraffes while she ventures off. Like human babies, calfs can be seen waiting for the mother, just where she left it. Also like humans, mama giraffes don’t get much sleep — only about 30 minutes to two hours a day. That leaves plenty of time for her to stand guard, protecting her baby like a guard dog … or mother giraffe?
Like most mammals, cheetahs love to cuddle their babies. But in some cases, they make great foster moms, too. When staff at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute introduced an orphan baby to a nursing mama cheetah, they weren’t sure how she would react. But she took right to it, caring for both cubs.
In the wild, mother cheetahs have to be diligent, moving constantly to keep their young safe.
We all knew Charlotte was a great mama spider. But it’s not just for the sake of the cartoon film. Spiders are actually super dedicated. Not only do they take excellent care of their eggs, keeping them safe and sound in their web, mama spiders then regurgitate their food to feed their babies after they are born.
But it gets more intense. When the babies are around a month old, the mama spider rolls over, letting the babies kill her, then eat her before they leave the nest. It’s a process called matriphagy. How about that for motherly love?
Best: Brown Bears
Similar to the polar bear, everyone knows not to mess with a mama brown bear. Even adult male brown bears are hesitant to cross her. Sadly, many of them still do. Males sometimes kill cubs fathered by a different male so that the female is ready to mate again more quickly, allowing the new male to pass on his own genes.
Mama bears, however, have come up with an ingenious solution. They realized that males were deterred by the presence of humans, so they began raising their cubs closer to cities and suburbs. This “human shield” tactic has proven to be quite effective.
Mama lions are next-level moms. Without lionesses, the pride simply wouldn't function. In addition to hunting for the males and caring for their own cubs, lionesses gladly help each other's babies to thrive.
Mama lions nurse their own cubs for up to two years, and while they're lactating, they're not selective about who they feed. They'll gladly allow any hungry cub to nurse, raising all the young lions as a community.
Pigs might look like dirty, well, pigs, but they're one of the smartest animals on Earth. They communicate clearly amongst themselves, using dozens of different oinks and snorts to express themselves. They even give specific snorts to each of their piglets, just like people give their babies a name.
The piglets can recognize the sound of their mother's snorts within two weeks of birth. They bond closely with mama pig and get nervous when she's away. Luckily, she can easily soothe them when she returns with snuggles, milk and even sweet, snorted "songs."
To start, orca whales endure a shockingly long gestation period. Mother orcas carry their calves for about 17 months. After nearly a year and a half of pregnancy, they give birth to massive calves who stay with them for life. The males eventually travel to other whale pods to mate with unrelated females, but they always return to their original pods.
There, their mothers continue helping them find food and lookout for predators throughout their lives. Male orcas often die within a year of their mother's death because they struggle to survive, even in adulthood, without mama orca.
If you're not sure quite what you're looking at in this picture, we don't blame you. It's an ordinary hen wrapping her wings around every single one of her chicks to keep them warm. Chickens try to shield their young from the rain and use a series of unique vocalizations to warn them about nearby predators.
They even start chirping to their babies when they're still inside their eggs. How cute is that?
Best: Strawberry Poison Arrow Frogs
If strawberry poison arrow frog moms weren't so tough, the species wouldn't exist. Found in Costa Rica, female strawberry poison arrow frogs carry their newly hatched tadpoles on their backs into the canopies of the rainforest.
They have to reach heights of more than 100 feet before they find their destination: pools of freshwater resting in the huge bromeliad leaves found at the very top of the trees. There, her tadpoles can grow safely to maturity before venturing out on their own.
Best: Snowy Owls
Snowy owl moms have more super senses than one. They use their acute sense of sight to spot prey creeping through the brush below, and their sense of hearing is even more impressive.
Snowy owls have sharp enough hearing that they can hear their chicks even before they hatch. That's like a human mom being able to chat with their baby while still in the womb.
Mama Eagle makes just about any mom look good enough. While it’s no doubt that sibling fights are obnoxious, the mother eagle just can’t be bothered. It’s not completely uncommon for baby eagles to peck at the weakest sibling, sometimes killing it.
But mama eagle doesn’t intervene. She lets the siblings have at it. It’s pretty brutal, but it’s survival of the fittest. And mama bird is not here for the squawking.
Baby bunnies are so cute and cuddly that it’s hard to believe their moms don’t snuggle them up longer, or really at all. Rabbit mothers apparently have better places to be. They leave the burrow just after giving birth, so those cute babies have to learn to fend for themselves quickly, only stopping by for a few minutes a day for feedings.
The tactic of mother rabbit leaving is actually said to help keep predators away from the babies, which sometimes works, sometimes not. She typically hides her nest out in the open, after all — another bad mom quality. Either way, mama rabbit hops off on her own, making her a pretty terrible nurturer. And, while rare, rabbits have also been known to eat their babies ... yikes!
Worst: Harp Seals
Harp seals definitely aren’t the worst mothers in the animal kingdom. They are dedicated at first, but only for about 12 days. During that period, they stay close to their babies, nursing round-the-clock. But after that, they hit the road, leaving their seal pup stranded on the ice.
The babies aren’t ready to swim until they are at least eight weeks old, so they stay put, lose about half their body weight and try not to get eaten. It’s a rough start to life, that’s for sure. And it’s no wonder that about one-third of all baby seals die in their first year of life. Thanks for nothing, mom.
Pandas might look like doting mothers to their one and only baby — and they are! But the reason they make bad moms is that they typically have two offspring and choose only to care for one.
It’s a cruel quirk of nature, perhaps, but the mother panda knows that taking care of more than one baby will hurt the food supply for the family. She chooses the strongest of the two to care for and completely neglects the other, often leaving it to starve. Naturalists call this “quality control,” but it sure is brutal.
Worst: Hooded Grebes
Similar to the panda, the mother hooded grebe plays favorites. This bird typically lays two eggs, and she and her male counterpart will take turns incubating them.
But the parents strongly favor the firstborn — so much so that they don't even wait around for the other egg to hatch. Let's just say there's no "Sophie's Choice" going on here.
If you thought hamsters were adorable pets, then you obviously haven’t seen the mothers eat their babies. That’s right: Those cute little caged animals have some horrifying habits. There is mixed research as to why hamsters sometimes ingest their little ones. Some believe it’s because they are malnourished after birth and need the nutrients. Others suspect it’s so they don’t have to care for so many baby hamsters because there can be up to 20 pups in a litter.
Regardless, eating your babies definitely gets hamsters a bad-mom award. But at least it makes the rest of us feel better about our mediocre mom habits.
When it comes to being master neglecters, cuckoos win big time. The mother cuckoo sneakily lays her eggs in another bird’s nest, tricking the bird into caring for her egg! What’s worse?
The cuckoo is usually the first of the birds to hatch, and when it does, it forces the other birds out of the nest, and, of course, they can’t survive on their own. Then, the baby cuckoo gets all the attention from their new parents. Mama cuckoo doesn’t have to do a thing. It’s kind of a brilliant, evil scheme actually. But hey, that’s nature baby.
Sparrows aren't terrible moms to their own chicks, but they're not exactly the most forgiving creatures. Any woman would be enraged if she discovered her partner had a secret family hidden away somewhere. Most women, however, would seek revenge by, oh, I don't know, throwing out his X-Box, or moving on?
Not sparrows. Female sparrows find the nests of any other sparrows their partner has mated with. She then proceeds to destroy the eggs and/or kill the chicks to ensure that her partner can focus solely on raising her chicks, not someone else's. Seems healthy.
Worst: Black Bears
You'd think that all kinds of bears would have similar instincts, but that's not always the case. Unlike brown bears, black bears aren't as naturally maternal. Black bears often have two or three cubs at one time.
On the occasion that a mama black bear only gives birth to one cub, she may abandon it. Raising one cub is nearly as much work as raising two or three, and to the black bear, one cub isn't worth the effort. Brutal.
Reptiles aren't known for being the most affectionate, and their lack of warm, fuzzy feelings extends to their offspring. Mother skinks are practical. If there are too many predators lurking near her clutch of eggs, does she try to fight them off?
Nope. She eats the eggs herself and lays new ones at a more opportune moment. How touching.
Worst: Burying Beetles
Burying beetles live truly horrifying lives. Their larvae, which is as close to a "baby" as a baby burying beetle can get, live within dead mice. The mother beetle chews up the mouse meat and regurgitates it to feed the larvae.
If there's not enough mouse meat to feed them all, the mother burying beetle takes one for the team and eats the extra larvae. What is it with nature and cannibalism? Sheesh!
Worst: Dracula Ants
Dracula ants are the most murderous moms of all. The appropriately named Dracula ant feasts on the blood of the colony's larvae, including that of her own babies. The mother doesn't drink enough blood to kill the larvae. No, she just drinks enough of their blood to keep herself alive in a process called nondestructive cannibalism.
The queen gets the first pick, but the worker ants are also invited to feast upon the blood of the baby ants. Remind us not to sign our kids up for Dracula ant daycare.
If you felt bad for feeding your kids Kraft mac n' cheese for three nights running, relax. Koalas feed their kids poop.
No, we're not kidding. Koalas engage in coprophagia, or the eating of feces, to help regulate their gut health. It's not actually a bad thing, but it is an awfully unappealing one from an outside perspective.
Koalas might serve turds for dinner, but at least they love their babies. Sure, quokkas do, too, but if it comes between saving herself or saving her baby, mama quokka is looking out for No. 1.
When faced with danger, quokkas are known for pushing their offspring out of their pouches and onto the ground to distract predators. The hungry dingo is kept busy with a snack while the mother quokka runs to safety. She can't make more babies if she's dingo dinner, right?
Worst: Mustached Tamarins
If you thought quokkas were bad, just wait until you hear about mustached tamarins. These primates are cold-hearted even for the animal kingdom. They've been seen throwing their babies out of trees or ignoring their cries if they fall by mistake.
Their parenting efforts vary depending on their environment, however. If the mother tamarin has a strong social group that's able and willing to provide protection and help find food, she's much more likely to care for her offspring well. If she doesn't, then she realizes her babies won't have a high chance of survival anyway and stops making an effort. There's always next season, eh?