LIFE View All


Mammals dominate our planet and can be found in every habitat, except the very deepest ocean. Their success lies in more than just the unique physical traits of fat, fur, and warm blood. What makes the mammals stand out is the care they lavish on their young.

The punishing temperatures of the Antarctic winter are as great a challenge as any mother faces. A Weddell seal mother wears her teeth down keeping open a hole in the ice so she can have year-round access to the sea beneath to catch fish. Her young pup also uses the hole for its first swimming lessons.

Warming spring temperatures in the Arctic are an equally great problem for the polar bear because the ice was its hunting platform. A mother bear and her family face starvation. They scavenge for scraps on land. When they find a vast bowhead whale carcass where other polar bears are feeding, the mother must suppress her normal instincts. Instead of fighting off any bears that come too close to her cubs she must let her cubs join them for a rare feast.

A mother rufous sengi maintains an intricate network of trails in her territory which she remembers in detail. When a predatory monitor lizard appears it chases her around her territory. But her warm-blooded metabolism allows her to run fast and with stamina. The lizard is soon exhausted and leaves.

Stamina is crucial to the survival of the giant straw-colored fruit bat. Ten million migrate from across the forests of central Africa to a small patch of forest and marsh in Zambia. It is a rare opportunity for a feeding bonanza. The trees are fruiting and the bats devour a billion fruits before dispersing again to their breeding sites.

Meerkats don’t just feed their young and keep them safe from predators. They live in truly co-operative family groups and it has recently been discovered that some adults actually tutor youngsters in finding and dealing with difficult prey.

No animal demonstrates the mammalian talent for teaching its young more clearly than the elephant. An old matriarch has 70 years worth of learning which she shares with her herd. She also uses it to help out in a crisis. When a newborn elephant gets stuck in the mud its inexperienced mother tries to help but makes matters worse. It takes all a matriarch’s experience to extricate the youngster from this potentially deadly situation.

For all the effort mammals put into nurturing their young, the effort of actually finding the right mate and producing those young in the first place may be even greater. A female humpback whale in Tonga wants to ensure she secures the strongest and fittest male to mate with. So she incites a battle. She releases a scent into the water and then makes her presence known by slapping her pectoral fins down hard on the surface. Males follow her and fight for prime position. They slash their tails and collide with enormous force, driving each other under water in their efforts to win access to the female and father the next generation.