Celebrating Marine Moms
The ocean is home to many moms of all shapes and sizes: from charismatic polar bears and dolphins to small fishes and shrimps and more. Learn about some of the diverse parenting habits of marine moms to ensure that at least some of their offspring survive to adulthood.
Polar Bear Mother and CubPolar bear moms put in a lot of work for their cubs! She'll become pregnant in April or May, and then spend the summer putting on lots of fat—often more than 400 pounds!—in order to keep herself and her gestating cubs fed during winter's hibernation. She hibernates in a den that she digs into the snow, sometimes with multiple rooms, starting in October. And by January, she'll give birth to 1-3 tiny, helpless cubs, whom she'll nurse until they're ready to emerge in early spring. The cubs will stick with their mom, continually nursing, for more than two years before they venture out on their own. Now that's a dedicated mom!
Alan D. Wilson
Phoenix is a New Mom
Phoenix, the North Atlantic right whale whose replica hangs in the National Museum of Natural History, celebrates her 18th mother's day this year. She had her first baby in 1996 at age nine and has had many more through the years. Some whale moms will breed their entire lives while others stop early. Learn more about this mammalian menopausal mystery.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #15488
Mantis Shrimp Mom Clutches Her ClutchSome moms do all the heavy lifting. This mantis shrimp mom uses her clubbed claws to protect her clutch of eggs from getting poached by predators. But she isn't working entirely alone. While she egg-sits, mantis shrimp dad is out hunting for both of them.
Flickr user Graham Busby, "buzzthediver"
Albatross with Her ChickSome moms split the load with dads. The Laysan Albatross mom and pop take turns incubating their egg for nine weeks, one sitting while the other catches fish for the both of them. After the egg hatches, they both take to sea to protect their chick, catching squid and fish for it to eat.
Dolphin Moms Teach Their DaughtersDolphin moms know best, and they make sure to pass on their knowledge to their daughters. One group of Australian bottlenose dolphins uses sponges as hunting tools to root up prey from the seafloor. But only the females engage in this behavior, which is passed on from grandmother to mother to daughter.
Ewa Krzyszczyk, Public Library of Science
Squid Watching Over Eggs
All squid species have long been thought to lay their egg clusters on the sea floor and move on. Then in 2005, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) observed a deep-sea squid species (Gonatus onyx) that keeps close watch over her eggs. Suspended from the squid's arms by hooks, the female squid carries her brood of roughly 3,000 eggs with her to keep them safe at depths of 5,000 to 7,000 feet (1,500 to 2,500 meters). She uses her tentacles to push water through the egg cases, providing them with oxygen.
© 2002 MBARI
It’s Good To Be QueenMuch like ants or bees, in some colonies of royal snapping shrimp you'll find only one mom for the whole bunch. This queen is in charge of breeding, and everyone else is devoted to serving mom and her babies by defending the sponge where they live from intruders and raising the young ones.
Emperor Penguin Mom Keeps Her Chick WarmWith 100 feathers per square inch, emperor penguins have the highest density of feathers of any bird. But when all those feathers can't keep babies toasty, mom is there for a warming huddle. Mom and dad take turns keeping their chick warm. And when the chick gets hungry, it uses a special whistle to alert its parents to free it from the inter-leg lockdown.
Wikimedia User "Mtpaley"
A Mouthful of EggsCardinalfish dads do their part to protect their eggs by gingerly carrying them in their mouths. However, a dad could easily swallow the whole bunch in one gulp! To keep her eggs alive, the cardinalfish mom will often lay a number of yolkless dummy eggs along with the real ones. These dummy eggs trick the dad into thinking he has more future offspring in his mouth—and thus the clutch is worth careful protection.
Flickr user Klaus Stiefel (PacificKlaus)
Queen of the AnemoneFor anemonefish, sex change is commonplace. The largest anemonefish living in a host anemone is female—the anemone's only maternal inhabitant—and all the smaller anemonefish are males or juveniles. When the queen anemonefish dies, the next largest male undergoes a sex change and replaces her as queen of the anemone.
Flickr user Jenny Huang (JennyHuang)/EOL
Marine Mammals Need Babysitters Too!Female sperm whales live in groups. Mothers must dive deep and long to find food, which leaves their calves in danger. So the moms help one another out. While one Mom is gone, the other mothers share babysitting duties until she returns.
Peter G. Allinson, M.D., Kingsville, Maryland, USA firstname.lastname@example.org
Talk about an investment! This octopus mom protected her brood of about 160 eggs for 4.5 years for the longest ever recorded brooding time of any animal. She was first observed by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) when they did a routine survey of deep-sea animals off the California coast in May 2007. Each time the scientists surveyed the site over the next four and a half years (a total of 18 times), they observed the same female octopus sitting over her brood. They were able to determine it was the same octopus due to her distinctive scarring, and they measured the eggs to ensure they were also the same. The extremely long brooding time, during which the mom never leaves the eggs (even to eat), helps to ensure that the young octopuses get enough oxygen and aren't eaten by predators.
© 2007 MBARI
Are You My Mommy?
Human infants often already resemble their parents. Visitors coo, "Oh, she has your eyes," or "He is the spitting image of his father." But what if the infant (or in this case, the larva) looked entirely different from its adult parents, with different body shape and coloring? This is the case for many marine species, especially fishes, making it difficult to match up a larva with it's corresponding adult. Most marine fish larvae tend to live in surface or near-surface waters, while adult fish inhabit largely different environments. The different habitats require two different body shapes, leading to larvae that look very different from their adult counterparts.
Smithsonian scientists matched the larvae (on the right) with the adult sea bass (on the left) by using DNA barcoding after finding the larvae in waters off of Florida.
Images from Barry Brown, Substation Curacao and Cedric Guigand, University of Miami