Menu

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.


You might also like:

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

There is rightfully a lot of emphasis on preparing for the arrival of a new baby. The clothes! The nursery furniture! The gear! But, the thing about a baby registry is, well, your kids will keep on growing. Before you know it, they'll have new needs—and you'll probably have to foot the bill for the products yourself.

Thankfully, you don't have to break the bank when shopping for toddler products. Here are our favorite high-quality, budget-friendly finds to help with everything from meal time to bath time for the toddler set.

Comforts Fruit Crisps Variety Pack

Comforts fruit snacks

If there is one thing to know about toddlers, it is this: They love snacks. Keeping a variety on hand is easy when the pack already comes that way! Plus, we sure do appreciate that freeze-dried fruit is a healthier alternative to fruit snacks.

Comforts Electrolyte Drink

Comforts electrolyte drink

Between running (or toddling!) around all day and potentially developing a pickier palate, many toddlers can use a bit of extra help with replenishing their electrolytes—especially after they've experienced a tummy bug. We suggest keeping an electrolyte drink on hand.

Comforts Training Pants

Comforts training pants

When the time comes to start potty training, it sure helps to have some training pants on hand. If they didn't make it to the potty in time, these can help them learn their body's cues.

Comforts Nite Pants

comforts nite pants

Even when your toddler gets the hang of using the toilet during the day, nighttime training typically takes several months longer than day-time training. In the meantime, nite pants will still help them feel like the growing, big kid they are.

Comforts Baby Lotion

comforts baby lotion

Running, jumping, playing in sand, splashing in water—the daily life of a toddler can definitely irritate their skin! Help put a protective barrier between their delicate skin and the things they come into contact with every day with nourishing lotion.

Another great tip? Shopping the Comforts line on Comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices—and follow along on social media to see product releases and news at @comfortsforbaby.

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that newborns, especially, do not need a bath every day. While parents should make sure the diaper region of a baby is clean, until a baby learns how to crawl around and truly get messy, a daily bath is unnecessary.

So, why do we feel like kids should bathe every day?

Keep reading Show less
Learn + Play