Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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An endangered baby Bornean orangutan hugs her adoptive mother at the Houston Zoo.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Animal Mothers Remind Us a Lot of Our Own

For animals great and small, it's often up to mom to teach them how to survive and use their instincts wisely, author says.

Animal moms are legendary, from the humpback whale's unfailing devotion to her calf to the tiny poison dart frog who goes to great lengths to raise her helpless tadpoles. 

As the editor in chief of National Geographic Kids magazine, Rachel Buchholz has accumulated a treasure trove of motherly tales, and she's assembled the best for her new book Amazing Moms: Love and Lessons from the Animal Kingdom

The book combines photographs of moms and babies nuzzling, playing, or in simple contemplation, with words of wisdom from sources as diverse as poets, proverbs, and presidents. (See National Geographic's pictures of animal mothers and babies.)

With Mother's Day coming up this weekend for many of us, National Geographic talked to Buchholz about her fascination with animal mothers—and how moms exist in many forms. 

What inspired this book? 

I began thinking how amazing it is that mammal or reptile moms do the same things that human moms do. When you’re a mom, everything you do is about trying to raise the best kid you can. (See photos of a mother's love.)

There's a quote in the book that says, "The better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run." And it's really true. 

The job of the mom—whether you are a human or another animal—is to raise kids who can protect and feed themselves and eventually leave the nest. 

Polar Bear Mom and Cubs When they're not playing, polar bear cubs learn under the watchful eye of their mother.

What is the greatest lesson about motherhood you hope to share from this book? 

Mothers are really teachers. If you’re a cheetah, your mom teaches you that your spots can help you hide. Chimp mothers teach their young which bugs are good to eat and how to catch termites. (See "Watch: Mother Raccoon Helps Baby Learn to Climb Tree.")

Animals are definitely born with instincts, but it's often up to the mother to teach them how to use those instincts wisely so they can survive on their own. 

So mothers don't really need to be biological mothers if they teach their young how to survive? 

Absolutely. I dedicated this book not just to my mom, who is super-important in my life, but to an aunt who did a lot for me and to my grandmother, my mother-in-law, and my godmother, all women who have made a huge difference in my life. You don't have to be a biological mom to inspire somebody. 

That's true in the animal world too. There's a lesson from [African] elephant herds: Not just the mom, but the grandmother, aunts, and cousins are all role models for the young. 

What’s your favorite animal mom story? 

The strawberry poison dart frog is my all-time favorite. This frog carries her tadpoles on her back to individual plants to swim around in the puddles in the leaves. 

She has the understanding that she can't keep the tadpoles together or they will eat each other, so she has to find each tadpole its own plant. Then she has to remember where each tadpole is.

The picture in the book is great because you can see the little tadpoles on the mom's back. (See "5 Strange Ways Animal Mothers Carry Their Babies.")

Did the photos or the stories in the book come first? 

For the most part, the animal behaviors came first. [Orangutan] young stay with their mom for six to seven years. And the females even come back and visit their mom years later.

I also wanted to tell unexpected stories, like [that of] the red-knobbed hornbill. She’s a bird that uses her own poop to seal herself and her eggs in a tree to hide from monitor lizards. I mean, that’s dedication. (See "These Long-Suffering Animal Mothers Deserve a Day Too.")

The photos are amazing and inspiring too. I love the one with the humpback whale pushing the calf up to the ocean surface. And the one with the baby croc in the mom's mouth—that might be my favorite. 

Why is that?

[Laughs.] The crocodile kind of reminds me of my mom. She has this really tough exterior. But she's just protecting her kids.

This interview has been edited and condensed.