By Graham Duggan  

When it comes to raising the kids, there are lots of animal dads that don’t bother putting in much effort, leaving all the work to mom.

“I find it absolutely fascinating to think about why and how animals have come up with such different solutions to how to look after their young,” says Sigal Balshine, a behavioural ecologist at McMaster University. “Probably the rarest and most interesting kind of care that’s out there is male-only care.”

Some devoted dads never leave their children’s side. The CBC Nature of Things documentary Stay-At-Home Animal Dads puts the spotlight on some of these doting fathers.

Daddy Daycare

On Canada’s west coast, a strange-looking father is guarding his brood. Sometimes called the “toadfish”, the male plainfin midshipman “hums” in the water to attract a mate. But once she lays her eggs in the nest he’s created under a rock or boulder, his real work begins.

The new father will stay in his cave, caring for the eggs and protecting them from predators until they hatch, four months later!

Other dads take an even more active approach. After a male brilliant-thighed poison arrow frog mates with a female, he keeps an eye on the developing eggs. Once the tadpoles hatch, he ensures they stay moist at all times. Sometimes that can even mean peeing on them.

To study these frogs, researchers fashioned a pair of froggy underpants with a tiny transmitter attached.

“With this transmitter, we can basically come anytime we want, find him and see what he’s doing,” says Andrius Pasukonis, one of the scientists studying them in the rainforests of French Guiana.

They discovered that if his pond starts to dry out, this daddy frog leaps into action. The tadpoles wiggle up and suction-cup onto this back and then, he hops to it, transporting them through the leaf litter until he finds the perfect pool for them to develop into froglets.

Pregnant Papas

It’s not only the females that can get pregnant. The seahorse is a well-known rare example of paternal pregnancy. The female inserts her eggs into a specialized pouch in his abdomen where they grow for weeks before being “born”.

Other fish, like the broad-nosed pipefish that lives off the coast of Sweden, take on similar fatherly duties. After a complex mating ritual, where the female deposits her eggs in the male’s “brood pouch,” he seals up the opening and nurtures his young by transferring oxygen and nutrients to them, even putting his own survival at risk to do so.

“We know that pregnant males have poorer survival, especially a male carrying a pouch full of eggs,” says Charlotta Kvarnemo, a biologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

What some unusual dads taught me about fatherhood

World’s Greatest Dads

In the frigid Antarctic winter, temperatures can plummet to 40 C below zero — not the best conditions to raise a kid. While mom goes fishing, emperor penguin males endure the cold while incubating some very precious cargo. Perched on their toes and tucked under their warm feathers sits a single prized egg. For two months, the papa penguins will incubate their egg, carefully keeping it off the frozen ground while eating nothing at all.

“They’re just incredible, and they don’t leave, they stay there for two months through this terribly cold period,” says Sigal Balshine.

The dads huddle together to stay warm and by the time mom returns, they’ve lost 40% of their body weight. Months later when mom finally shows up with a belly full of food to feed the little one, he’s ravenous; it’s his turn to fish, while she minds the chick.

Further north in tropical Australia, this bird dad doesn’t have to deal with bad weather but does have to deal with grumpy mums. Female emus are the ones who rule the roost, fluffing up, drumming and strutting around in order to attract a mate. Once she’s laid her eggs though, she’s done.

The male will incubate his clutch for 8 weeks while hardly moving, eating, drinking or defecating. But once the eggs hatch, his job has only begun. Daddy emu will take care of his young for the next 18 months, protecting and teaching them all they’ll need to know about emu life.

Watch Stay-At-Home Animal Dads on The Nature of Things



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