Nature's Guide to Motherhood: How Hormones Connect Us to the Animal World
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Nature's Guide to Motherhood: How Hormones Connect Us to the Animal World

May 01, 2023

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Motherhood is a complex and profound journey that connects us to all living creatures on this planet. Whether it's the tender bond between a human mother and her child or the nurturing instincts of an animal mother, the love and care that mothers provide is unparalleled. And hormones play a vital role in shaping the experience of motherhood for humans and animals alike.

From the maternal aggression triggered by specific peptides in the brain to the adaptability enabled by fluctuating hormone levels, the biology of motherhood is fascinating. In this article, we will explore the many ways in which hormones connect us to the animal world and provide valuable insights into the remarkable experience of motherhood. Let’s discover the lessons that human mothers can learn from their counterparts in the animal kingdom.

Patience from Elephant Mothers

Any woman who has struggled with fertility or pregnancy issues will tell you that patience can be an elusive virtue. The cycles of waiting and hoping, testing and trying will frazzle any woman’s nerves. If this struggle feels familiar, take a minute to reflect on what elephant mothers must deal with.

Elephants have the longest pregnancy of any mammal, lasting up to 22 months. That’s roughly 95 weeks! Just imagine nearing 40 weeks of pregnancy, when most human mothers can expect to deliver, and then realizing you’re not even halfway to the finish line.

Biologists have long been puzzled as to how elephants can maintain such lengthy pregnancies, but recent research has revealed that elephants create more temporary glands to monitor hormone levels during ovulation and pregnancy.

Female mammals, including humans, typically have one gland called the corpus luteum, which generates progesterone to regulate hormone levels during pregnancy. Elephants, however, create an average of five such glands, with each gland arising over time to replace the previous one as it slows production of progesterone.

By having more glands, elephants are better able to maintain hormone levels and ensure the successful development of their offspring. Of course, this means they also have five times the hormones to manage.

Tracking and managing hormone levels can feel like a full-time job for women who are trying to conceive. If the journey to motherhood feels daunting, try channeling the patience of an elephant. Remember to care well for your hormones by eating nourishing foods, getting adequate rest, and supplementing your diet when needed.

Protective Instinct from Lioness Mothers

Lioness mothers are known for their fierce protectiveness of their cubs. The lioness will defend her cubs fiercely against any perceived threat, whether it is a predator, a potential rival lion, or a human. She will use her strength and agility to fend off attackers and may even sacrifice herself to protect her young. The lioness's protective behavior is crucial for the survival of her cubs and the continuation of the lion pride.

Any mother who has seen their child dart across the street without looking or get knocked down by a bully at the park has probably felt the protective instinct of a lioness rush into her veins. Scientists are starting to understand the fundamental biology at work in a mother who will move heaven and earth to protect her child.

New research suggests that levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the brain may be the biological basis of maternal aggression, the behavior that drives a mother to risk her life to protect her offspring. The study involved mice that were given varying levels of CRH, with mothers that received higher doses showing a fear response and failing to attack to protect their young, whereas those with low CRH levels displayed expected aggressive behavior.

Today’s threats to our children can feel every bit as dangerous as a hungry hyena lurking in the shadows. Now, predators stalk their prey on social media and private message boards.

To protect their children from predators on social media and message boards, parents can educate their kids about online risks, set up parental controls, maintain open communication, establish rules around usage, and know the signs of grooming and online abuse to report suspicious behavior. By taking these steps, parents can help ensure their children's safety while using the internet.

Adaptability from Orangutan Mothers

Orangutan mothers have the ability to adjust to different situations and environments to ensure the survival of their offspring. For example, they will build a new nest each night to protect their baby from predators, and they will adjust their feeding habits based on the availability of food.

The ability to be adaptable in parenting can be influenced by various factors, including hormones. For example, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to play a role in maternal behavior, including increased responsiveness to infant cues, improved social memory, and reduced stress responses.

Changes in levels of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol during pregnancy and the postpartum period can also impact a mother's behavior and mood. Lifestyle factors like poor diet, stress, lack of exercise, and environmental toxins can disrupt hormonal balance and interfere with a mother’s well-being.

We want to be at our best to adapt to the ever-changing needs of our kids. But feeling worn out, irritable, and out of sync often leaves women feeling like they're running on empty. Remember the often-cited example of the oxygen mask on a plane? We’re all probably familiar with the instructions to place the mask on our own faces first, then turn to help any dependents. When mothers tend to their own hormonal health, they’re energized to adapt to the needs of those who depend on them.

Partnership from Penguin Mothers

Penguins are known for their uniquely successful partnership parenting. Unlike some animal species where the male fulfills one specific duty and then disappears to find his next love conquest, penguins behave more like devoted partners. And we may have hormones to thank for their example.

Both male and female penguins produce the hormone prolactin when they are caring for their eggs and chicks. This hormone stimulates the production of crop milk in both parents.

In emperor penguins, the males actually take on the majority of the parental duties, including incubating the egg for two months in the harsh Antarctic winter. During this time, the male penguin’s prolactin levels rise and he begins to produce crop milk to feed the chick once it hatches. The female returns to the colony after the egg is laid and then goes out to sea to feed, returning later to take over feeding duties from the male.

Prolactin also plays a crucial role in the production of milk in new mothers. It is released in response to nursing, and its levels rise significantly during pregnancy to prepare the body for lactation.

Prolactin also affects new fathers, although to a lesser extent. Studies have shown that men experience an increase in prolactin levels when their partners are pregnant and after the birth of their child. This increase in prolactin is thought to help men become more nurturing and responsive to their infants' needs, promoting bonding and attachment between fathers and their children.

Penguins know what they’re doing when they divide the tasks of child care. Research supports the “partnership of equals” approach as a model for satisfaction in human relationships as well. In fact, a Pew Research Center study reported that sharing household chores “now ranks third in importance on a list of nine items often associated with successful marriages – well ahead of such staples as adequate income, good housing, common interests, and shared religious beliefs.”

United Through Hormones

Motherhood is an extraordinary experience that connects us to the natural world in profound ways. By delving into the fascinating ways that hormones function in both humans and animals, we can gain a deeper understanding of this unique bond.

The hormones involved in pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are not just exclusive to humans; they can also be found in other members of the animal kingdom. These similarities highlight the universality of the maternal experience, and reveal how our biology has evolved to support the nurturing and protection of our offspring.

By exploring the science behind motherhood, we can gain valuable insights into the wonders of the natural world and the remarkable experiences that connect us to it.

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