Bear with cubs

Image by LuCaAr/iStock

The instinct of a mother to protect her young is legendary. It has been applied to a lot of animals but most notably to the bear. In fact, human mothers are jokingly called a “mama bear” when they’re considered overprotective.  Is this comparison on point? Let’s look at maternal instincts in human mothers and compare them to a range of other animals to find out.

Human mothers

Following nine months of pregnancy, human mothers generally devote a lot of time to rearing their young. Initially, the pair is rarely separated. Over time,  mothers teach children to walk and develop cognitive and social functioning skills. Nurturing behaviors change and lessen over time, but often they continue through a lifetime.

Its been well documented that if they can, human mothers will go to great lengths to protect their offspring.  They’ll save their children from fires, from attackers, and sometimes from children’s own bad decisions. During these times of stress, it has been documented that a human mother’s instincts kick in. They’ve been known to stay calm and focused, doing everything they can and meeting any challenge to protect their child.

Gorilla, elephant, lion, and alligator mothers

Wildlife biologists have documented a wide range of maternal behaviors throughout the animal kingdom. While maternal behavior appears differently from species-to-species, the intensity of focus on caring for young is remarkable. For example, gorilla mothers devote a long number of years for caring and nurturing.  They have even been known to tenderly carry them on their back after they’re past the age when they’ve learned to walk. And they will fight any predator that is looking to do harm to their offspring.

Elephant mothers are also known for being devoted and nurturing. They are pregnant for an astounding 22 months and can maintain lifelong bonds. Elephant mothers receive help from other mothers in the herd–in essence, mothers teaching other new mothers the ropes. It’s the ultimate mothering experience in the animal kingdom.

Perhaps unexpectedly, fierce lions and alligators make for strong, nurturing animal mothers. Lionesses stay with their cubs once they’re born and will go to great lengths to feed them and protect them from any predators–even other adult lions. The sharp-toothed, jaw snapping alligator also is a delicate, nurturing mother. She carries her young carefully between her jaws for protection.

Bear mothers

So how do the maternal behaviors of each of these animals compare with bears? After an extensive pregnancy, mother bears tend to stay close to their cubs. They find the youngsters food, teach them to hunt and teach them about their environment.

Bear mothers won’t hesitate to use their large bulk, sharp teeth, and claws to defend against predators. When this happens, the size of a bear mother and her instinct for aggression can have a large effect on the damage she can do. Polar or grizzly bears with their huge weight and fierceness would be a daunting challenge.

Generally speaking, it is common wisdom for anyone encountering any breed of mother bear and cub to move as far away from the pair as possible. On their webpage about bear safety, the U.S. National Park specifically advises “never place yourself between a mother bear and her cub or approach them. The chances of an attack escalate if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.”

While it sounds like bear mothers could take the prize for the fiercest in nature, there’s one fact about their habits to keep in mind. Once they become pregnant with their next litter of cubs, they send their current bears off onto their own. This may, ultimately, be for the bears’ own good and to protect them against other aggressive adults. It doesn’t, however, typically foster lifelong bonding.

The answer

So which mother in the animal kingdom is the fiercest mama? Its impossible to really know. Each animal has its own set of behaviors which are developed to protect young and help them grow old enough to successfully breed their own offspring. In addition, there are differences in the ability and interest of mothers to nurture their young. One elephant, for example, may be a strong nurturer while another may have no idea of what to do and may let their young encounter danger.

But a general sense of protective, nurturing maternal instincts is documented across most animal breeds. These behaviors are always inspiring to observe. For humans, it gives us further cause to contemplate our own species and examine our place in the natural world.