What are some examples of animal species that are raised by their fathers?

With father’s day coming up tomorrow, it seems like a great opportunity to learn a little more about the fathers of the animal kingdom. What are some species that have active fathers?



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    In the animal kingdom, there are several examples of two parent, group, no-parent or single-parent rearing of offspring.  With monogamous species, such as the beaver, mated couples raise their young together.  Animals that raise their young together, such as with lion prides, will protect and nourish both their own cubs and those of the other lionesses.  There are also offspring which are left by both parents, such as with many fish and turtle species, but perhaps one of the more common is a single parent approach to child rearing.  We often think of the mother of the species raising the young.  This is certainly true for all mammal species, since the mother gives live birth to animals (the exception to this rule is monotremes, which lay eggs) and nurses the young via mammary glands.  However, there are some species where the father plays a much more active role in protecting and raising the offspring than the female does. 

    Although many seahorse species are monogamous, the female seahorses are less engaged in ensuring the safety of their embryos before birth than the males.  Seahorses are one type of animal that have almost reversed gender roles as compared to what we normally see (although not officially considered a role reversal).  The female is generally more colorful which helps to attract the male; this is the opposite of what we see with many bird species (think peacock vs. peahen coloring and size of tail feathers).  During mating, the female will deposit eggs into a part of the male’s anatomy called the brood pouch.  Once inside the pouch, the eggs are fertilized, incubated a few weeks and then the seahorses (between 8 and 200 depending on the species) are born.  Although the seahorse father does not further raise his offspring after birth, there are no reports of the females taking an active roll in supporting the father during the pregnancy period, and yes, the males are referred to as being pregnant.

    Another particularly active father in the animal kingdom is the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri).  These penguin fathers will arrive at the mating site first, after a long trek to ice field breeding grounds, to create a nest.  After courting and mating with a female, the female will lay an egg and transfer it to the male’s feet.  The male will then incubate the egg for about 9 weeks, losing up to a third of his weight since he will not be able to feed.  Amazingly, the fathers will be able to keep the egg at just under 88 oF with an Antarctic temperature of -76 oF.  The females will go back to sea during this time and return around the time the chick hatches to relieve the male.  After the chick hatches, the parents will take turn in protecting, feeding and keeping the chick warm during their most vulnerable times.

    Greater rheas (Rhea americana) are another bird species where the male plays a bigger role in hatching and raising their young than females.  Greater rheas live in the south-eastern portion of South America, and at 5 feet tall, are approximately half the size of an ostrich.  While this species is not monogamous during a single mating season, both males and females will take more than one mate in a single season, the males aggressively protect their young.   During mating season, a male will build and protect a nest.  He will mate with up to 12 females who can lay several eggs in his nest.  The nests typically contain 20 to 30 eggs but have been documented to have as many as 80 eggs.  The male will generally be the sole incubator of the eggs, and continue to feed and raise them until they are about 6 months old.

    There are also records of insect fathers helping to ensure safe hatching of their fertilized eggs. One example is the water bug.  With some species, the female will glue her eggs to a piece of vegetation and the male will remain with the eggs until hatching.  He will to protect them from predators and keep them from drying out.  In other species, the eggs will be attached to the male’s back.  While this inhibits his swimming ability, it allows him to ensure the eggs will hatch safely.  Another report of a good insect father is the cockroach.  Although not all species have contact with their young, some fathers will ingest bird feces to bring back nitrogen to his young.

    Lastly, there are species that keep their young in their mouths to protect them.  Darwin’s frogs (Rhinoderma darwinii and Rhinoderma rufum) are two such species. The female will lay eggs on moist land while the male will fertilize them after they are laid. The male will then remain by the eggs until they are just about ready to hatch.  The male will then move the eggs into his throat.  The eggs will stay inside the vocal sac until they are fully formed, at which point the male will let the young go into the water.  There are also several fish species that practice mouth brooding.  Two examples are the betta fish and the banggai cardinalfish.  With betta fish that do not breed in calm waters that allow nest building, the male will keep the eggs in his mouth for the duration of the egg incubation.  Similarly, the male banggai cardinalfish will hold the eggs and frys in his mouth until they are capable of fending for themselves.  During this period, which lasts about three weeks, the male will abstain from eating in order to protect his young. 


    Photo Credits: Seahorse, Emperor penguin, Greater rhea, and Betta fish.

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