Maternal Care and Offspring Development in Odontocetes

  • Janet MannEmail author
Part of the Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals book series (EBEMM)


Odontocetes are characterized by slow life histories and extensive maternal care, where offspring nurse for years in some species. Among some of the largest toothed whales, the mother and offspring of one or both sexes stay together for a lifetime, forming the basis of strong matrilineal social units and transmission of culture along maternal lines. Mother and calf face a series of challenges from the moment of birth. The newborn must quickly learn to follow and breathe alongside the mother—and wait for her while she dives for food. Within months the calf transitions to infant position for much of the time, although their swimming ability allows them to associate with others in the mother’s network. Because calves can easily become separated from their mothers, an effective communication system is necessary, and signature whistles and pod-specific dialects appear to serve this function. The mother plays a central role in the development of calf social and foraging tactics. Where this has been studied, calves adopt maternal behaviors, including foraging specializations, and share the mother’s network post-weaning. Although difficult to demonstrate “teaching” per se, dolphins are particularly good candidates given their exquisite learning ability and social tolerance. The role of non-mothers is clearly important in calf development, but whether calf interactions with non-mothers constitute “allomothering” remains unclear for most species. What is clear is that group living by cetaceans affords the calf protection from predators and possibly from infanticidal males. The causes of calf mortality are generally not known, as carcasses are rarely retrieved, but disease, predation, poor maternal condition, and anthropogenic causes (pollutants, provisioning, bycatch, boat strikes), and—rarely—infanticide, are all implicated. Weaning occurs when the calf no longer nurses, evident by cessation of infant position swimming. Interbirth intervals are also used as a proxy for weaning, though the calf frequently nurses during the mother’s subsequent pregnancy. Post-weaning, mothers and daughters continue to have preferential bonds, but in killer whales and pilot whales, sons also continue to have a strong relationship with the mother.


Maternal care Development Weaning Lactation Culture Social learning Predation Babysitting 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyGeorgetown UniversityWashington, DCUSA

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