“Mom knows best”– the adage is true not just for humans but also for many animals, including the cheetahs, wood ducks, and jaguars studied by experts at Virginia Tech.

Wildlife expert Anne Hilborn recently discovered that cheetah mothers change their eating habits when they have young by their side. Instead of eating meals as quickly as possible, mothers with cubs slow down and spend time watching out for threats like lions. This allows enough time for mothers and cubs to eat more safely.

“Mothers have to be extra vigilant since cubs eat more slowly and will take breaks to rest or play,” says Hilborn. She is a faculty fellow at the Center for Communicating Science and earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on how large carnivores impact on the way smaller carnivores hunt and interact with their prey.

A unifying theme for decades in researcher Bill Hopkins’ lab has been understanding how the health and behavior of a mother influences her offspring. His team discovered wood ducklings are more likely to run faster, jump higher, and have stronger immune systems when their mother spends more time sitting on eggs, instead of away seeking food for herself. Wood ducks are famous for surviving jumps upwards of 50 feet out of their nests.

Hopkins says “it is amazing how mothers can make such important decisions in terms of when to invest more in themselves than their babies, because poor early developmental conditions can have lifelong consequences.” He is a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and the Director of the Global Change Center. His research focuses on parental effects and how parental physiology and behavioral decisions may influence a parent’s fitness and the fitness of his/her offspring.

Researcher Marcella Kelly has used remote triggered cameras for the last 16 years to keep tabs on the maternal lineage of jaguars in the jungles of Belize. Her team is following a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter. The mother recently had another cub and Kelly’s team is waiting to see if it appears and what will happen.

Kelly is a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses primarily on carnivore population ecology, management, and conservation.

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Contact Ceci Leonard at ceciliae@vt.edu or 540-357-2500. Virginia Tech's television and radio studio can broadcast live HD audio and video to networks, news agencies, and affiliates.

Wood duck mother and duckling
Wood duck mother and duckling. Photo Credit: Lara Hopkins