Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
With Father’s Day coming up on June 20, we decided to find out whether other animal species have fathers that deserve to be honored. Granted, we didn’t discover any other fathers reading bedtime stories or playing catch with their young. As a matter of fact, in a large portion of non-human species, neither parent is involved with their offspring. And when parental care is given, the nurturing parent is nearly always female.
In approximately 95 percent of mammal species, a male’s only contribution to the process is to reproduce, and then he’s gone. Only in species with extended gestation periods does the male play a larger role. Under these circumstances, the papa often brings food for the mother in the later stages of pregnancy and while she’s nursing, but afterward, he leaves.
There are, however, delightful exceptions to this pattern. Here are our favorites.
The male red fox is known for being a devoted mate and father. The parental pair remains together and shares a burrow; while the female awaits the birth of their pups, the male provides the food. When the pups are born, the mother nurses them and keeps them warm, while Dad stands guard and continues providing food.
The male fox becomes the dominant partner when it comes to educating the youngsters to face the world. Even before they’re weaned, he starts playing with the offspring. When the pups are approximately 3 months old and have been weaned from their mother’s milk, it’s time for lesson number one: There is no such thing as a free lunch, breakfast, or dinner.
Good old Dad gradually begins reducing the amount of food he brings to the pups even before they are weaned. That way, they’re hungry when they discover room service is coming to an end. At this stage, he gives only part of the food to the youngsters “” he buries the rest close to the den. It’s easier to persuade pups to sniff around for more if they are hungry. Before long, the pups know how to find a buried meal. They’d better, since they’ll soon be catching their own.
Another survival skill the father teaches his pups is how to escape from predators. He teaches this by example, lying in wait and then ambushing the pups. Not bad, huh? Happy Dad’s Day, foxes.
As a whole, bird couples do far more parenting than mammals. In fact, 90 percent of bird species have two-parent families. The pair often stays together so that one parent can sit tight and incubate the eggs, while the other finds food and brings it home to the family. Then, when the eggs hatch, the parents share guarding and foraging duties.
With predatory birds especially, by the time the eggs are laid, hatched, and fledged, and the young have learned to hunt for their own dinner, it’s almost breeding season again. Thus, the parents may decide to stay together.
Oddly, a few bird species reverse their parental roles. Spotted sandpipers, common across the United States, are one example. In their case, the female is dominant during courtship, and the male is responsible for most of the rest. He spends three weeks sitting on the eggs, and then another three weeks tending to the chicks. That leaves her free to fly out and find another mate.
The Wilson’s phalarope also reverses roles, with the male going so far as to even build the nest before he takes on the other duties. Unlike the spotted sandpiper, his breeding plumage is far less colorful than his mate’s, and that’s almost unheard of in birds. Males also are significantly smaller than females.
Ecologist Sara Lewis calls seahorses “the champions of paternal care.” Well said, since the males do everything but supply the eggs. Once the female deposits her eggs into the male’s chemically controlled pouch, her work is done. The “pregnant” father carries the developing embryos, and as they grow, his belly balloons accordingly.
We can’t say whether the male seahorse actually has labor pains, but somehow he knows when to deliver. It’s a simple process “” he merely has contractions that squeeze the baby seahorses from the pouch. It requires several hours and lots of energy, but in time, the entire bunch of babies makes its entrance.
Unlike mammal and avian youth, seahorse young emerge ready to fend for themselves. That frees the male, so he heads back to his partner to mate again. You would think he would need some rest first!
Finally, we enter the world of the giant water bug. Male parenting is extremely rare among insects, but it works for this species. In many animals, the male is the one with the flashiest attire. Not these 1-1/2-inch bugs. But they have an elaborate courtship ritual. After the pair breed, the female latches onto her mate and remains there until she’s ready to lay her eggs. Well, she doesn’t actually lay her eggs; she cements as many as 150 of them to his back, and then departs.
The beast of burden “” otherwise known as the male “” carries the eggs for the next three weeks, periodically aerating them to prevent mold or other aquatic organisms from growing on them. To ward off parasites, he also suns himself at the water’s edge. During this time the eggs will triple in size. Somewhere along the way the male stops eating altogether, presumably to avoid consuming his offspring in error. Once the young hatch and scatter, the empty egg “shells” fall off his back and, after a brief respite, he begins looking for his next partner.
Happy Father’s Day.