From moms who give their lives for their children to those who decide their offspring are not even worth raising, the maternal instincts of wildlife in our national parks and marine national monuments are as wildly diverse as the places themselves.
Supermom: Grizzly Bear
Grizzlies and brown bears are fierce defenders of their cubs, chasing away predators — including male grizzlies, who are known to kill babies in order to mate with mama (not smooth, fellas). Their protective nature stems from having the lowest reproduction rate among all mammals in North America; grizzlies typically birth two or three cubs every five years. Brown bears, many of which are a heftier version of the same species, can be found in many of Alaska’s national parks, but in the Lower 48, grizzly bears are currently only found in Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, with a handful or fewer remaining in North Cascades.
Grizzly 399 in Grand Teton has grown to charismatic mega-momma status, capturing the hearts of wildlife lovers and attracting the camera lenses of award-winning photographers. She brought joy in 2020 when she emerged from hibernation with four cubs in tow and had a similar effect this year when she recently reappeared with the now-yearling brood.
Slacker Mom: Black Bear
While grizzly moms are fierce defenders, the black bear moms who roam majestic parks on both coasts are known to make cold calculations when it comes to caring for their young. While black bear moms who give birth to two or three cubs often stick around to care for them, those who have single children often reject and abandon them. And if the mom and offspring do stay united, the relationship often ends when a new mate comes into the picture, causing the mom to chase her yearlings away.
It’s a plane … no, it’s a bird … an albatross! With some species sporting up to a 12-foot wingspan, albatross are among the largest flying birds and use their hang-glider-like bodies to soar up to 500 miles a day, staying airborne for up to a year at a time. Once they do make touchdown, these super-breeders mate for life, laying eggs well into their “golden” years. Lifelong mating does come with some wiggle room, however, as albatross sometimes enjoy partners on the side. Mother and father birds team up from incubation through the time their chicks are ready to take flight, taking turns protecting the eggs and foraging for food.
The most famous albatross of all, Wisdom, makes her home on Midway Atoll at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and at 70 years old, she is still bringing new life into the world.
Slacker Mom: Brown-Headed Cowbird
This species covers a wide range, from Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California to Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia and beyond — though individual birds stay near, and return to, the same breeding grounds. Despite this affinity for her nesting area, however, mama bird cannot be bothered with taking time to hatch eggs and raise her young. The bird carries the unfortunate title of “brood parasite,” which means the mama scopes out the nest of another bird, drops her eggs in the other mom’s basket and flies off. The surrogate mom, a literal birdbrain, raises them as her own and may not even realize it. Unfortunately for the step-chicks, brown-headed cowbirds often hatch faster and are known to kick other eggs out of the nest.
Supermom: Giant Pacific Octopus
While a two-legged mom may guilt her kids by insisting, “I would give my life for you,” giant Pacific octopuses literally do it. The octopus carries the distinction of being a “terminal spawner,” meaning females only have one opportunity to reproduce. They typically mate near the end of their five-or-so-year lifespans. As they wait up to six months for their 18,000 to 74,000 eggs to hatch, the mothers hover over the eggs to protect them — and do not leave or eat during this time. The mothers typically die shortly after their eggs hatch.
These heroic parents can be found at Channel Islands, Glacier Bay and other oceanic parks.
Slacker Mom: Seahorse
When it comes to seahorses and motherhood, the phrase, “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” comes to mind. During mating, the female seahorse transfers her eggs to a front-facing pouch on the father-to-be, who over time develops a baby bump and eventually births up to 1,000 young. Immediately following their courtship, however, the female seahorse swims off and rejoins her fellow kid-free bachelorettes for sushi (Sea-Monkeys are her favorite) and enjoying that sweet eel grass.
Supermom: Desert Tortoise
This ancient mama has slowly but steadily roamed the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts for 15 to 20 million years, and can be found today in places such as Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Demonstrating how she has adapted over all that time to her harsh, arid home, this wise tortoise can wait up to five years after mating to lay her eggs, giving the hatchlings a better chance of surviving. While desert tortoise moms don’t stick around after their babies hatch, they vigilantly defend their eggs from predators, including Gila monsters.
About the author
Kati Schmidt Director, Communications, Alaska, Northern Rockies, Northwest, Southwest, Pacific
Kati Schmidt is based in Oakland, CA, and leads media outreach and communications for the Pacific, Northwest, Northern Rockies, Alaska, and Southwest regions, along with NPCA's national wildlife initiatives.