Happy father’s day!
First off, to every father out there (biological or not), this is the time where we stand up and say thank you. We may not always show it, but we love you and appreciate everything you have done for us thus far.
Today is also the day where we celebrate the uniqueness of our fathers, as no two dads are alike. In fact, there are many different types – the “cool” father, the “don’t get on the wrong side of me” pop, and of course the “don’t tell your mother” dad.
It is not just in humans that fathers show such a wide degree of parenting styles, as the same is true in the animal kingdom.
The thing is, the role of being a father is often overlooked in many animals – they deposit their sperm and leave, their job complete, and leave the rest of it up to the female. While it may often be the case that the biggest role an animal father has in their offspring’s life is the sperm they donate, some animal dads do go the extra mile and exceed all expectations. However, let us first look at some dads who are, quite frankly, not the greatest role models out there.
Lions are regal animals, and not just in a Disney’s The Lion King sort of way, but they act calm no matter the situation and manage to look damn impressive doing it.
But the funny thing is, contrary to popular culture, male lions do not take an active role in raising their children. In fact, they are pretty lazy.
The female lions in the pride do all the hunting and killing for the family unit, with the male defending his territory against intruders and scavengers. All the male does is stand there are look tough, and maybe growl or roar every now and then.
Trouble arises when his dominance is threatened and he engages in a battle with another male. If he loses control of his pride, his offspring will be in trouble because one of the first things the new male will do is kill all the cubs that were reared by the other male. This is done because female lions do not become sexually receptive again until their cubs mature or die.
Therefore, as horrible as it may seem, the only way the usurper male can create offspring is to make the females receptive to his advances by any means possible. It is “survival of the fittest” at its best.
It must be tough being a bear.
They’re cute, cuddly and portrayed in so many children’s movies and television as friendly that people tend to forget how fierce they actually are. Suffice to say, they are not all loveable oafs like Winnie the Pooh.
Male grizzly bears have a huge territory, which can exceed over 3,000 square kilometers, which makes finding a mate extremely difficult. But, thanks to a male’s sensitive sense of smell and a little luck, eventually a male and female will meet, mate and make little cubs.
However, when times are tough and food is scarce, grizzly bear males have been known to go after and kill any cub in his range (even his own).
Unlike lions, this killing of cubs occurs without a challenger usurping the dominant male, and scientists were baffled as to the explanation. However, recent research may indicate that since bears are opportunistic hunters, they will take advantage of any food source to help them survive, whether it be berries, fish or their own young.
Okay, so some dads occasionally eat their babies through an evolutionary prerogative. But don’t feel too disheartened; now that the really bad dads are out the way, it gives us a perfect opportunity to take a warm-and-fuzzy look at some of the most admirable fathers in the animal kingdom.
The Stay-at-Home Dads
The female of these adorable little primates usually gives birth to twins, which can take its toll on any mother. The ordeal of pregnancy on the female is a rough one, as the newborns can account for over 25 per cent of her body weight! That would be like a human female giving birth to a 40-pound baby.
Understandably, after that ordeal (in addition to providing milk to the newborn), the female needs a break.
Luckily, this is where dad comes in!
Almost immediately after birth, the marmoset father grooms and licks the newborn to give the female time to recuperate. This is extremely important, as female marmoset can become pregnant again only two weeks later!
These large flightless birds are super-dads who have no need for any help from mom. In fact, the sole male in the family group of up to a dozen females will be the sole incubator of the over 50 eggs for up to 40 days.
The male rhea will then chase anything, including females, away from the hatched chicks and raise them completely on his own.
What a guy.
There are many things that are peculiar about ostriches: their big eyes, the impressively large wingspan and the sheer size of their eggs. But one thing that most people are not aware of is that ostriches participate in true tag-team parenting.
After a female lays her eggs, the parents take turn incubating them: the female during the day, and the male at night. Zoologists believe that the male gets the night shift because, with his darker coloring, he will be less visible to predators and therefore be able to protect the nest better than the female.
Once the eggs hatch however, the male’s job has only just begun. He will fervently defend the hatchlings from predators, as well as teach them to feed. Not bad for an animal that many people still believe sticks their heads in the sand at any sign of trouble (for the record, they don’t).
When you imagine a picture-esque animal dad, a red fox is not what springs to mind. They can be inquisitive, shy, mean and territorial. But, like most things, you have to look deeper than that.
After a female red fox gives birth, she must stay in her den in order to feed her young and keep them warm. Therefore, it is up to the male to venture out every six hours or so for food for himself and the mom. Talk about room service!
Once the pups have matured a little bit, dad will call his pups away from their mom to play with them. It is through this play that the father will pass on his knowledge of survival skills to the next generation. He will teach them how to hunt, scavenge and escape predators in a variety of ways, including hiding food for the pups to find and roughhousing.
After all, if you’re going to teach something, you might as well do it in a fun way, right?
The Mr. Mom’s
It is a simple story that we have all heard before:
Boy meets girl. Boy courts girl. Boy and girl fall in love, get married. Boy gets pregnant.
Yes, you heard correctly! Male seahorses accept the eggs, fertilize them and carry the eggs to term. In fact, the seahorse is the only animal where the male becomes truly pregnant.
So, how does this even work?
The female inserts her oviduct (where anywhere from 50-1500 eggs will travel through) into the male’s specially adapted brood pouch (located on his abdomen). When the eggs are in place, the male fertilizes them and clings to a nearby plant and proceeds to wait a few weeks for the eggs to mature.
Every morning during the gestation period, the female seahorse will visit the male and engage in a greeting ritual that lasts for several minutes, before leaving once again. After a few weeks, the male will give birth to live young at night, and then return to his mate the following morning for the next batch of eggs.
When it comes to being a great dad, emperor penguins deserve to win an award year after year for the sheer amount of work and devotion they show to their offspring.
Female emperor penguins lay one egg at a time because it would require too much energy to produce more than one. At this point, most bird species would set up a nest and sit on it for hours at a time, often with the male and female taking turns to incubate the developing embryo.
But, that’s not their style. No, emperor penguins are too intense for something as simple as a nest – they lay their egg on the cold Antarctic permafrost!
After laying her egg, the female is exhausted and needs to feed. So, she carefully transfers her precious cargo to the feet of her mate. This must be done with the finest precision, because if the egg slips onto the freezing ice or snow beneath them for too long, the unborn chick is unlikely to survive. Then, female then waddles off to the ocean to fill her belly, leaving daddy with all the parental responsibility.
The diligent father incubates his egg in his brooding pouch for the next 65 days, during which he does not eat. When the egg hatches, his job is to keep the near-featherless little chick warm since it cannot yet regulate its own body temperature. Therefore, in order to keep the newborn chick warm, all the fathers huddle together and form a giant phalanx of fathers and newborn chicks to try and conserve as much heat as possible.
And in a feat of reorganization, the males will circulate in the mass, allowing each group a turn at the cool outermost edge and warm center.
Eventually, the mother emperor penguin returns from sea, full of food and energy to devote to her newborn chick. She takes over from dad, and after over two months, it is finally dad’s turn to fill his belly for the next shift change.
Not Bad, Dad!
Hopefully you can see from this article that there are some pretty fascinating fathers out there in the animal kingdom, all with their own unique style. While many male animals simply deposit their sperm and leave all the parenting up to the female, some really do go the extra mile.
So to all the dads out there, human or not, thank you for just being you!
1) Photo of Male Lion posted to Wikimedia Commons by Tony Brierton (Creative Commons license). 2) Photo of Grizzly Bear posted to Wikimedia Commons by Shellie (Creative Commons license). 3) Photo of Pygmy marmoset posted to Wikimedia Commons by Malene Thyssen (Creative Commons license). 4) Photo of Rhea posted to Wikimedia Commons by LadyofHats (Creative Commons license). 5) Photo of Ostrich posted to Wikimedia Commons by Nicor (Creative Commons license). 6) Photo of Red Fox posted to Wikimedia Commons by Alan D. Wilson (Creative Commons license). 7) Photo of Seahorse posted to Wikimedia Commons by Joanne Merriam (Creative Commons license).
About the Authors:
David Manly is a Canadian freelance science journalist who holds degrees in Biology and Zoology, as well as a Masters of Journalism. Currently, he writes about the ecology, physiology and behavior of all different types of animals (from fungi to mammals and everything in between), as well as how to improve science communication and interaction between professionals and the general public. You can find David’s work on his Lab Spaces blog, as well on his own blog The Definitive Host and on Twitter (@davidmanly).
Lauren Reid has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, and is currently undertaking an MSc in evolution and animal behavior at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Her interests include the evolution of sexual strategies, human-animal interaction, science in the media and dressing up for fun. She wants to be a science communicator when she grows up so she can make a living out of telling people how awesome science is. She can be found on Twitter (@psychogeek07) and through her blog, Phylogenetic Tree Hugger.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.