Motherly instincts and love aren't just human, they're mammalian

Humans and whales share a mammalian brains and social traits.

Motherly instincts and love aren't just human, they're mammalian
Whale Research Center

She held onto her baby, who died shortly after birth, for as long as she could. Even after the body grew cold and stiff, she carried her child. She didn't want to let go.

She is a whale, an orca known as J35 or Tahlequah, but many humans who watched her mourn for more than two weeks could empathize with her plight and understood her behavior. For 17 days we watched her grieve. And on August 11 the Whale Research Center confirmed she finally let her baby go. We may be a different species, but we know how hard that was, and how it went against her instincts as a mother.


"It is very familiar to any of us who has lost a family member, and that is why people around the world are feeling sad for her. It is so easy to empathize with her for what she is going through, that is her baby and she carried this baby for 18 months. She had a little bit of time, about 30 minutes with her child, and then she watched her die," Lori Marino, a marine mammal intelligence specialist told the Seattle Times earlier this month.

"I think that is what we are seeing; she is attached and just as when someone dies in our own lives, she is neglecting herself because this is taking precedence over everything," said Marino.

Her grief is just one example of how maternal instincts and the behaviors that lead to mother-infant bonding can be similar across species.



Mammalian maternal instinct

According to Dr. Dayu Lin, an assistant professor at the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Health, evolution has conserved biochemistry in most mammals.

This may explain why whales, mice and humans can all seem to exhibit similar maternal behaviors, because, according to Lin's recent study of mice, a mother's instinct to grab her wandering pups is related to a specific set of brain cell signals designed to keep babies out of danger.

"Our study shows precisely how a maternal instinct is generated in the mammalian brain," Lin explained in a media release. She believes the study may help explain human behaviors, like rocking a newborn, and could even lead to therapies for human moms who are having trouble with things like breastfeeding or bonding with their babies.

Why we carry our babies

Another study, this one published in 2013 in Current Biology, again shows how similar the behavior of different mammalian moms can be, but also how similar our babies responses to those behaviors are.

After neuroscientist Kumi Kuroda became a mother herself, she noticed, as so many of us do, that carrying her son while she walked was a great way to calm the newborn down. As Science reports, Kuroda brought this observation to her work in the lab at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, near Tokyo, and found that picking up mouse pups by the scruff of the neck makes them calm, too.

"We didn't expect that," Kuroda said, noting that researchers examined the way the mice pups and infants responded to being picked up and found three responses (stopping crying, becoming passive and experiencing a decreased heart rate) "are very similar in mice and humans."

Lin's study suggests a mother's instinct to carry her baby away from danger is similar across species, and Kuroda's suggests mammalian babies love being carried because it makes carrying them away from danger easier for us moms.

From mice to whales

So was J35 trying to calm her deceased baby and carry it away from danger for 17 days? Perhaps that was part of it, at first.

"She literally is pushing her baby to connect with it and, hope against hope -- hoping that it will take a breath, which it will never do," biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin told CBSN.

Eventually though, J35 knew that her baby was gone for good. Her response wasn't just mammalian maternal instinct, it was something else that crosses species lines.

Speaking to CBC's On The Coast, anthropologist Barbara King explained, "grief and love are not human qualities. They're things we share with some other animals."

A 2017 found "overwhelming evidence that cetaceans have sophisticated social and cooperative behavior traits, similar to many found in human culture", according to the University of Manchester.

Empathic reactions

It's our mammalian instinct to carry our babies, and as fellow mamas we can empathize with J35. When the Seattle Times asked for reactions to the story, one reader, Cori McKenzie, wrote:

"Our middle daughter was stillborn six years ago. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of her. I think every baby-loss parent I have ever met relates to Tahlequah."

McKenzie said she wished she could have spent a "week or more" with her daughter, like J35 did. And she hopes the outpouring of empathy for the whale might translate into more empathy for human parents, too.

"We all wish that our society and culture would recognize how deep this loss is felt and how it changes you down to your core," McKenzie explained.

Self-care, support, and stewardship

Carrying the weight of her lost calf for so long and over such a distance was hard on J35 physically, and emotionally.

She was "not acting in a way she normally would in terms of self-care," Barbara King, professor of anthropology and author of the book "How Animals Grieve", told the Seattle Times.

It is so hard to care for yourself when you just want to care for your lost baby. Mothers like McKenzie can relate to that, too. J35's pod supported her in her grief, even taking turns carrying the baby when her mother was too weak. We can empathize with our fellow mammals, but maybe we should learn from them, too.

According to whale researchers, the lesson here isn't just that we need to be more like the whales, but that we have to protect them, too. The Whale Museum is hoping that empathy can turn into action and that humanity will take steps to protect and restore the salmon population J35's pod feeds on, and reduce ocean pollution.

"In 6 months when these events may not be in the spotlight, remember the feeling you have right now," Whale Museum staff wrote in a recent Facebook post.

For mothers who've been through what J35 has, those feelings are never forgotten.


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