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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Father Knows Best?: A Look at Animal Dads

Air Date: Week of

To celebrate Father's Day, Steve Curwood speaks with zoologist Donna Fernandes about which fathers in the animal kingdom stay around to nurture their young, and the lengths to which some of them go.


CURWOOD: Among humans it's a tragedy: fathers who take off before their kids ever have a chance to know them. But among other animals, it's usually the way things are done. Most animals never see their dads. But of course there are exceptions. And in honor of Father's Day we've asked our favorite zoologist, Dr. Donna Fernandes of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, to take a gander at the animal fathers who do stick around to help raise the kids. So, tell me, Donna, which are the most active animal dads?

FERNANDES: Well, it really depends on the type of animal we're talking about. For mammals, which we are, only about 5% of all mammal species exhibit any kind of care by the male or paternal care.

CURWOOD: Five percent?

FERNANDES: Five percent. Most of them get the female pregnant and then take off.

CURWOOD: Ninety-five percent deadbeat dads, huh?

FERNANDES: That's right.


FERNANDES: But the 5% tend to be concentrated in a couple of major groups. Primates, such as ourselves, and carnivores.

CURWOOD: Carnivores?

FERNANDES: Right, the meat eaters. And the typical kind of parental care that they'll provide is, they'll bring meat to the female when she's nursing because she's not very mobile. So that is a group that's very common. In foxes and African wild dogs you see it particularly.

CURWOOD: So 95% deadbeat dads among the --

FERNANDES: Of the mammals.

CURWOOD: Of the mammals. How do the birds do in this area?

FERNANDES: Well, the birds fare much better. Ninety percent of the 9,000 species that are sort of living today do exhibit bi-parental care. That's where both males and females assist with rearing the young. And males will do a variety of things. Typically they'll build the nest with a female or build a nest alone, in fact. They'll often incubate the eggs, and typically feed the chicks as well once they hatch.

CURWOOD: Is there a super dad among the birds?

FERNANDES: I like to think so. Some of them just do extraordinary feats. Emperor and king penguins, the females are often so exhausted energetically after having laid this single large egg that she takes off, abandons him pretty much to go feed. So she goes back into the water. And the male is left in the freezing cold, incubating the egg for about 60 to 80 days where he doesn't feed at all. So he gets quite thin. And then eventually the female will come back and spell him and she'll take over for a bit, he'll go feed, and then they'll both sort of alternate feeding the young chick.

CURWOOD: Let's turn our attention now to the ocean. We think of the whales swimming with their young. Is that just moms or are those dads involved?

FERNANDES: It's just moms that are -- moms and calves together. The males don't stay and participate with rearing in whales. But in fish, again there are a couple of fish that are renowned good fathers. Probably the most well known is sea horses, where the males have a specially developed pouch in their stomach which receives the eggs from the female. In fact it's the only species where the female really has the intermittent organ and she transports her eggs into the male.

CURWOOD: So she really impregnates the male?

FERNANDES: She impregnates the male, right. And he'll spend 3 weeks with this, these eggs developing in his belly, and then you'll see these little miniature sea horses, which sort of look exactly like the adults emerge, pop out, and then they'll start feeding on their own.

CURWOOD: What other fish take exceptional care as dads of their young?

FERNANDES: A group of fish called cyclids, where mouth brooding is quite common, and that's usually done by the female, but there are a few species where it is the male who will brood the eggs in his mouth. So after the female lays her eggs he'll eject his sperm over the eggs and pretty much gobble up the eggs and store them in his mouth, and they'll develop in his mouth. And even once they've hatched into little fry, he keeps them in his mouth for protection.

CURWOOD: Well, how's he going to eat?

FERNANDES: Well, that's the problem. He doesn't get to eat very regularly while he's in this period of incubation within his mouth. So he does get quite hungry. But he's been shown not to eat his own eggs.

CURWOOD: We've been talking about a lot of good dads. Is there sometimes an arrangement where this interest in paternity is not so great for the family?

FERNANDES: Well, there is a marine worm, a type of polychete, where she's probably too excited about the prospects of dad taking care of the young. Because after she lays her eggs, he does ultimately take care of the offspring. But as soon as she's done laying her eggs he gobbles her up and eats her, and then uses the energy stored in her body, which he now absorbs, to sustain him during that period of paternal care. So she does get cannibalized, much like many species where females will cannibalize the male. This is an interesting switch on that, it's the male cannibalizing the female.

CURWOOD: New definition to the word "ladykiller," I guess.

FERNANDES: [Laughs] That's right.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you so much. Dr. Donna Fernandes is with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Thanks for joining us.

FERNANDES: Thank you.



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