Animal Dads

by Rebecca Twinney; illustrations by Emma Kearney

In nature, animal fathers get a bad rap. You’ve probably heard the story about the grizzly bear that ate his own cub or the guppy that swallowed his fry only moments after its birth. If you searched for examples of deadbeat dads, you’d find a wealth of information: the assassin bug devours his young like caviar and the power-hungry lion makes the perfect evil stepfather. But while the good animal dads may be few and far between, these seven examples offer a variety of unusual and admirable parenting techniques.

7. The arowana is a freshwater fish with an elongated body covered in silver scales. It has large, black eyes and a whisker-like sensory organ protruding from its jaw. While it may not be the most attractive fish, its anatomy is perfectly suited for its parental duties. Environmentalist Bryan Nelson describes the arowana as a “mouthbrooder.” The term means exactly what it sounds like: the male arowana carries his brood of tiny fish around in his mouth, which opens like a drawbridge. Just in case you’re thinking, “Hey, I could do that,” it is important to note that these fish are prolific breeders. A father arowana may shelter hundreds of baby fish in his mouth at a time. With his children hitching a ride on his tongue, the male also forfeits food until the fry mature. He’ll even let the fry out to explore on occasion, making sure to scoop them all up before returning home.

6. The South American Darwin’s frog is another great animal dad. Resembling a decaying leaf with a pointed face and brown belly, this species also offers a bizarre taxi service. Instead of keeping his young in his cheeks like the arowana, the Darwin’s frog swallows them. The eggs remain in his vocal sacs for six weeks until they’re fully developed. Then, as a strange spin on morning sickness, the male vomits up his kids. If that’s not parental devotion, I don’t know what is.

5. The jacana, a water bird with a baby blue head and absurdly long toes, is the perfect “stay at home dad.” In addition to building the nest, the male jacana incubates the eggs. While the mother leaves to mate with other males, the father cares for the fragile young. He’ll even “babysit” for other males’ eggs, staying behind to watch the nest while the females migrate. When the eggs finally hatch, the father will carry a fuzzy fledgling under each wing as he teaches them to forage. He’ll even fly with the kids tucked under his feathers. With two pairs of spindly legs sticking out from his chestnut plumage, the male jacana takes the phrase “helicopter parent” to new heights.

4. Male emperor penguins, like the jacana, also provide the majority of care for their young. After the female penguin lays an egg, she departs for a two-month feeding holiday to regain her strength. In her absence, papa penguin takes over. Tall and regal, the male balances the egg on his flat feet to keep it from freezing. Since arctic temperatures can reach negative 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the fathers huddle together for warmth, forming a circle around their precious little ones.

3. The male Dayak fruit bat doesn’t harbor his young in freezing temperatures, but his remarkable parenting style still qualifies him for the third greatest animal dad. A medium-sized species with grey-brown wings and short hair, the Dayak bat possesses an exceptional parenting adaptation. The Dayak bat serves as one of the only known occurrences of paternal lactation. In plain terms, father Dayak bats actually produce breast milk for their young. While the evolutionary advantages of such a singular adaptation are not well understood, this little bat chips in for what is arguably the most basic and vital aspect of rearing young.

2. The male red fox is another formidable contender, though it’s hard to top a lactating father bat. Once the babies are born, the mother must remain inside their den to act as a living space heater. During this period, the father fox hunts for the entire family, bringing his mate and children “room service.” While dead rodents and birds might not sound like the most delectable takeout, the pups rely on these paternal contributions during this crucial period. Once they’re old enough to leave the den, dad begins hiding chunks of prey nearby to teach them how to forage. In addition to these gruesome Easter egg hunts, the male fox also plays with his children at every opportunity. Male red foxes are even known to quietly call to their pups after their mother falls asleep, beckoning them to come play with him.   

1. The male white-headed marmoset beats out all the competition. As the #1 greatest animal dad, this pocket-sized primate is notorious for his piggyback rides. Distinguished by a striking white face and black ear tufts, the male white-headed marmoset often carries his wide-eyed newborns around on his back. Since each infant makes up about 20 percent of the male’s bodyweight and marmosets have an unusually high occurrence of twins, this feat is not to be overlooked. Additionally, because of the high occurrence of twins and the relatively large size of each newborn, births are trying and messy ordeals. That’s where the male marmoset comes in. Acting as a midwife of sorts, the male marmoset remains attentive to his mate, even biting the umbilical cord and cleaning up the afterbirth. Not only does this primate dad care for the infants almost exclusively for their first weeks of life, he plays a major part in bringing them into the world.

From the deep ocean, through the arctic air and back down to the forest floor, these seven fathers challenge the notion that all animal dads either abandon or consume their young. While their exceptional displays of paternal investment may be rare in the animal kingdom, there is no doubt that these species make natural dads.