Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
When it comes to the parenting skills of our nonhuman kin, it’s the behaviour and instincts of mothers that often get the most interest. Many qualities found in nonhuman mothers, from the protectiveness of a bear towards her cubs to the dedication of an octopus in brooding her eggs until she dies, are ones we like to celebrate as exemplary of motherhood. As a result, the contributions of nonhuman fathers to raising their young can be overlooked. So for Father’s Day, we are spotlighting five fantastic nonhuman fathers.
It is pretty uncommon among mammals for fathers to take on any active role in caring for their children. Of the thousands of mammal species that have been identified, fatherly behaviour only appears in about 5 to 10 percent of them, with the males of the other species tending to concentrate on producing as many offspring as they can. The mountain gorillas of Central/East Africa are among the small number of mammal species that exhibit paternal care.
Social groups of mountain gorillas tend to have one dominant male who protects the group. But they will also form strong bonds with the young gorillas, whether or not they fathered them. Once the young start weaning from their mothers, they start following around the males, who will cuddle them, groom them, play with them, and share their nests with them for sleeping.
This paternal care is not only good for the young gorillas’ development, it also benefits the adult males. A study found that males who invest the most time in grooming and resting with infants father around five times as many children as males who do the least bonding with young gorillas.
Grey wolves are another of those rare mammals whose males show fatherly instincts. They tend to mate for life, forming male-female pairs who are the mother and father of their family packs. In the first few weeks after a litter of pups is born, the mother stays with them in the den while other adult wolves stand guard and hunt for food to bring them. Once the pups are big enough to start going outside, things become more egalitarian and the adult wolves will take it in turns to bring them food, play with them, and baby-sit them.
Though baby seahorses are left to fend for themselves as soon as they are born, it’s worth giving a shout out to the seahorse fathers as one of the very few males of a species who actually do the job of getting pregnant and giving birth. A male and female seahorse will woo each other over several days through an elaborate ‘dance’ to determine their suitability for mating. Once a decision has been made by the female, she transfers her eggs to the male, who then fertilises them and carries them for several weeks, providing them with nutrients while they develop.
During birth, the fathers will even endure contractions as they give birth to up to 2,000 babies. Though the clutch of children can be so large, as few as five in every 1,000 will survive due to predation or getting swept away from feeding grounds by ocean currents. Nonetheless, the fathers give them more of a fighting chance by carrying the babies until they are ready to be born, whereas other fish species will abandon their eggs as soon as they are fertilised.
Male Emperor penguins are renowned for their dedication to caring for their unborn babies. After the mothers have laid the eggs, they go out to feed for two months to replenish themselves. During this time, in the harsh Antarctic winters, the fathers incubate the eggs by holding them between the tops of their feet and their bellies, not moving or eating for the whole time, surviving on fat reserves built up during the previous months. If the eggs hatch before the mothers return, the fathers produce milk from their oesophagus to sustain them.
On the mothers’ return, the dads head out to sea to replenish their own nutrient and fat stores, coming back to the colony after three or four weeks. For the next six months, the mums and dads share the work of caring for the babies and going out to hunt for food.
Flamingos can live for 50 or 60 years, and in that time may only produce a small number of offspring. This means they are particularly committed to ensuring the survival of their children, with males and females sharing the caring responsibilities. Their wetland habitats can vary between baking hot and dry or flooded, meaning the parents may have to travel back and forth between feeding and nesting sites. The father initiates the nest building before handing the task over to the mother. Once she lays an egg, he resumes the building work, creating a high mound around the egg to protect it from flash floods. Both parents share in the work of incubating the egg, while the dads tend to defend the nest from unwelcome visitors. As the chicks are dependent on their parents for quite a long time, the fathers contribute to feeding and protecting them until they are ready to become independent.
Flamingos can also form same-sex couples, and last year one such male pair at Whipsnade Zoo adopted an egg that had been rejected by its biological parents, sharing in the task of incubating it and then raising the chick.
Both human and non-human fathers want to protect their offspring. By observing gorillas, wolves, seahorses, penguins and flamingos, it is clear that fatherhood is widespread across the animal kingdom.
For the animals.