1. Emperor Penguins
If you’ve ever watched March of the Penguins, you have some idea of what being a penguin parent entails (it’s really, really hard). Both Emperor moms and dads put in a lot of work when it comes to raising their young: After laying their eggs, Emperor moms immediately leave their mates to watch the eggs for up to eight weeks, and they may return after their chick has hatched. At that time, they take over the brooding, while their mates go out for food, a process that repeats for nearly two months.
Sure, brooding and feeding are extremely important parts of animal kingdom parenting, but what about teaching your little whippersnappers to do that kind of stuff on their own? Cheetah moms are especially patient when it comes to training their offspring to both hunt their meals and escape falling prey to other larger animals. Sound easy? It’s not—mainly because cheetahs often have large broods (up to nine cubs at a time) that all need training at the same time. It can take up to two years for the cubs to really learn and internalize their mom’s lessons.
Elephant moms are pregnant for a significant amount of time—22 hefty months—only to then give birth to gigantic babies (elephant calves clock in around 200 pounds!). And that’s just the beginning of elephant parenting.
Baby elephants are born big, but they are also born blind, and they rely on both their trunks and their moms to get around. After they get with the program, baby elephants live in an extremely mom-centric environment—elephants form a matriarchal society where just about every female takes part in raising the little ones. Elephant babies rely on their mothers for support and nutrition for up to two years, during which they are also taught to forage, collect water, and protect themselves.
4. Harp Seal
Harp seal moms have a lot to contend with—the moving ice sheets they call home, polar bears desperate to eat them, poachers who want their fur—but even without all those outside worries, things still get pretty dicey. Harp seal mothers lose an extreme amount of weight while feeding their pups. The first 12 days of a harp seal pup’s life is spent feeding on their mom’s milk—a potent blend that boasts 48 percent fat—while their mother doesn’t eat a thing. Pups will gain five pounds a day, but their mothers will lose around seven, all in service to fattening up their little ones.
Orangutan moms stand out in the mothering world thanks to two major elements of their parenting that are not duplicated by other species.
First, they build brand-new nests every single night, which means that most orangutans build up to 30,000 homes over the course of their lives. Not impressed yet? Consider the second trait of orangutan moms: They don’t put their babies down for years. You try building a nest with a baby hanging off you! Better yet, try it with a toddler—orangutan kids have the longest dependence period of any animal, and they will stay attached to their moms for up to seven years.
6. Wolf Spiders
While other spiders leave their eggs on their webs while they go about their normal spider lives, wolf spiders take their egg sacs with them everywhere—and then take their young everywhere after they’ve hatched. Wolf spider moms attach their sacs to their bodies, later letting the baby spiders ride on their backs until they’re of age to hop off.
7. Polar Bears
After getting impregnated, polar bear moms need to pack on the pounds: If they don’t at least double their body weight (usually adding another 400 pounds), their bodies will reabsorb their fetuses. After all that eating, the hefty mamas then need to dig a den in the snow, hibernate for about two months, and give birth—often without even waking up.
While that part of the parenting process might sound easy, polar bear moms are then tasked with taking care of their little ones for about two years, during which they will all journey for more pound-packing food to pad their next hibernation, practice hunting and defense, and dig a new den or two.
There’s little chance you’ll ever stumble into an octopus egg den, but take our advice—it’s not something you want to do. Octopus moms are especially driven to reproduce, which is why they will lay up to 200,000 eggs in order to up their odds. Moms will then protect the eggs for up to two months—they won't even leave to hunt! Some octopus mothers will go so far as to eat their own tentacles to keep up their energy during the protection period.
When it comes to koalas, their big tummies can make raising their cubs a bit harder (and definitely grosser). Koalas chow down on poisonous eucalyptus leaves because their digestive tracts are filled with a special bacterium that can process the leaves—but they’re not born with it. Koalas work to build up their joeys’ tolerance by feeding them their poop.
As if that wasn’t already some all-time mom material, koalas are also marsupials, meaning they are born without fur, ears, or eyes, and they have to finish development in their moms' pouches (before it’s time to get down to the poop-eating).
Alligators may not look very cuddly, but they make excellent mothers. A gator mom kicks things into high gear by building a nest made out of rotting vegetation that self-heats, allowing her to hunt, hang out, and guard said nest with maximum attention.
Internal temperature often determines the sex of the gator babies, so the nests have to be made with climate control. Nests that heat up to less than 88 degrees make girl gators, while warmer nests (over 91 degrees) usually spawn boy gators. After the kids hatch, gator moms will gently carry their young in their giant mouths, taking them to the water to learn all the necessary gator stuff they have to know, with lessons often stretching out for a whole year.
11. Greater Hornbills
Koalas aren’t the only animal moms that rely on poop for parenting—greater hornbills also use it, but for a different reason. Hornbills lay their eggs in hollowed-out trees, with mama hornbills staying behind to protect the eggs while papa hornbills go out for food. Where does the poop come into play? The hornbills use it to seal up holes in their hollowed-out homes, the very same places where the mother hornbills spend their days.
All images courtesy of Thinkstock.