It turns out that humans may not be the only storytellers in the animal kingdom. Mothers across many species have much more in common than we previously thought, especially regarding cultural education.
In almost all species, mothers provide their offspring nourishment, comfort, and protection, but to successfully survive in the wild, the young must also learn a lineage of cultural knowledge. This wisdom is crucial to biodiversity and is generally learned from mothers and other elderly role models.
Culture is knowledge and skills passed socially from individual to individual and generation to generation. It is not genetic, it is learned. Socially-learned skills, traditions, and dialects that help a species understand how to live on earth are essential to helping populations survive.
This generational passing-down of skills equates to the fourth level of diversity of life on earth that scientists have only recently acknowledged. They’ve previously defined biodiversity at three levels, the diversity of genes within any particular species, the diversity of species in a given place, and the diversity of habitat types such as forests, coral reefs, etc. The fourth level is that of cultural diversity.
These survival sets must be learned from mothers who learned from their mothers, forming a culture unique to each animal. It is also fragile. Before a population declines in numbers to a point where it would be considered endangered, their special cultural knowledge begins disappearing. Recovery of lost populations through rewilding or other methods becomes much more difficult.
For example, Sam Williams’ Macaw Recovery Network in Costa Rica rewilds captivity-hatched fledgling scarlet and great green macaws. But introducing young birds into a complex forest world without cultural education generally provided by parents or older role models is risky.
Trying to restore parrot populations is not as easy as training captive or orphaned young to recognize what food is and then setting them free. “In a cage,” Williams told ecologist and writer Carl Safina for The Guardian, “you can’t train them to know where, when, and how to find that food, or about trees with good nest sites.” Only mothers, and in the case of macaws, fathers too, can do that.
Another example is orca whale mothers, who give birth to just one calf every five years. With a high mortality rate in the first year, mothers must constantly watch over their young. For the first month of their lives, the calves don’t sleep, so mothers forgo rest to stay up with them. Sound familiar?
Orca young also stay with their mothers their entire lives, even after having offspring of their own, continually learning. They only separate for a few hours at a time to forage and mate.
Known as the most socially complex non-human species, orcas, live in layered societies of pods, clans, and communities. All community members know the members of their constituent pods and carefully avoid contact with members of other communities. All this social organization is learned from elders.
Elder orcas also instruct their young to learn important strategic migratory routes. The same is true for various birds and mammals. The young would not know where to go without this instruction from the more senior keepers of traditional knowledge.
An elephant herd is another complex society and one that is female-dominated. A female elephant, or matriarch, oversees every herd, usually consisting of five or six related animals.
Female elephants carry their developing young for up to 22 months, longer than any other mammal. For the first two to three years of life, baby elephants are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk.
After age two, when a calf starts to eat independently, the mother's milk remains a critical part of its diet. The other female elephants in a herd, the calf's aunts, aid its mother in providing protection and caring for the young.
Male elephants stay with their mother in the herd for 16 years, almost as long as human young stay with theirs. Daughters of the matriarch typically remain with the herd for most, if not all, of their lives. They are dependent on the community for food, protection, and guidance from their mother.
From macaws to orcas, elephants, and humans, the role of motherhood is central to survival and a healthy life. Finding one’s place in the world takes guidance, love, and a few nudges from mom.