SHOULD ANY ANIMALS CELEBRATE FATHER'S DAY?

by Whit Gibbons

June 19, 2016

Not all species of animals have a mother or a father. A detached starfish arm can grow into a complete starfish, and a chopped off piece of a planarian flatworm can become a new individual. So a starfish or flatworm may have no mother to honor on Mother's Day.

And what do the whiptail lizards of the Southwest do on Father's Day? In many of these desert-dwelling lizards no males exist. In a complicated genetic process, only female offspring are produced. Nonetheless, paternal care is common among some species throughout much of the animal kingdom.

Birds set the bar for males who take care of their offspring. Some estimates are that males in up to 90 percent of the more than 9,000 species of birds assist in raising the young. Activities include nest building, incubating the eggs and feeding the babies.

The males of some birds actually bring food to the nesting female. African hornbills nest in tree cavities whereupon the male seals up the opening, creating a protected chamber for the nesting mother, leaving only a small feeding hole.

With a homebound mother unable to get out and forage, males earn Father's Day recognition by continually bringing food to her during incubation.

Compared to birds, few male fishes participate in rearing the young despite there being more than three times as many fish species. But a few qualify for father-of-the-year status. Mother seahorses apparently decide early in the process that incubating eggs until they hatch should be the role of the father.

Following courtship between the parents of these small marine fishes that look like knights on a chessboard, the female deposits her eggs in a pouch in the front of the male to be fertilized.

The father then flits around for up to a month with a pouch full of developing sea colts. Father's Day cards would seem in order, which might number more than 1,000, as that is how many eggs some seahorse mothers produce.

Exclusive paternal care is also practiced by some jawfish and catfish in an equally unusual manner. The yellowhead jawfish is a small coral reef fish. The gafftopsail catfish is commonly caught by anglers along the southern coasts.

Both have a father-take-charge task ahead of them. They are mouth brooders, which means that after they fertilize the eggs they scoop them up and carry them around in their mouths for days until they hatch. Some continue to carry the fry, which eventually swim out of an opened mouth.

Few of the 7,500 kinds of amphibians show any kind of paternal care, but those that do are exemplary. After mating, the male of a species known as Darwin's frog of Chile swallows the developing eggs that the female has laid on the ground litter and carries them around in his vocal sac for more than a month.

One of nature's spectacles is froglets hopping from the open mouth of a male Darwin's frog. Other noteworthy amphibians with Father's Day creds are hellbenders, the giant salamanders that live in mountain streams and rivers from Alabama to New York.

Male hellbenders prepare a nest under a big rock for the female to lay eggs. The mother leaves, but the dutiful father stays around, defending the eggs until they hatch into larvae.

Most reptile species get no recognition on Mother's or Father's Day because with few exceptions once the babies are born they are on their own. Lizard, snake and turtle dads are not a praiseworthy example of caring fathers.

Among alligators, mothers are the consummate caregivers, but the fathers do not seem to get involved. However, I have watched babies sit on the snout of their 13-foot-long father who never tried to eat them.

I guess that could be viewed as some level of paternal care. Or maybe he didn't want to risk that the highly protective mother 10 feet away might display her maternal instincts.

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