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Refuge notebook: Dads in the wildlife world

Posted: June 13, 2013 - 5:07pm
Photo by Rebecca Hitchcock Male red-necked phalaropes, commonly found in lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, may be among the best dads in the wildlife world.
Photo by Rebecca Hitchcock Male red-necked phalaropes, commonly found in lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, may be among the best dads in the wildlife world.

This Sunday is Father’s Day, a national holiday since 1972 that celebrates the good things that fatherhood can bring to their families and society. But a recently-released AP poll found that 2 in 5 unmarried women without children would consider having a child on their own without a partner, including more than a third who would consider adopting solo. So what good is Dad?!

While I don’t want to discuss parenting in American society (particularly since I try to be a good dad), let’s take a look at paternal roles in other species. In general, females hold all the cards in an evolutionary sense because they always know their young are their own whereas males can’t be as certain. This translates to an evolutionary incentive for males to be wayward and not invest a lot of time and energy in raising offspring which may or may not be their own. This life history strategy generally works for species that are short-lived, produce a lot of young at one time, or are polygamous.

But there are plenty of exceptions among feathered and furred dads. The male emperor penguin may take the cake, as portrayed in the movie “Happy Feet,” incubating a single egg by keeping it on top of his feet (and off the Antarctic ice) but under his brood flap. Dad does this for two to three months straight, sacrificing about half his body weight! Mom is off feeding during this time, returning just in time to take up her role as primary caregiver after the chick arrives.

Our local champion of fatherhood may be the male red-necked phalarope, commonly found breeding in pothole lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. In a complete reversal of parental roles, phalarope dads build the nest, incubate the clutch of four eggs, and care for their young until they fledge. Meanwhile mom either lays another clutch or migrates early to begin her vacation in warmer climates. 

Parental roles in trumpeter swans and bald eagles may be more closely aligned to what is often considered ideal in American society. Both species are monogamous for life (although they will mate again if one dies), with the female doing most of the incubation. Although cygnets are precocial (capable of walking post-hatch) and eaglets are altricial (essentially helpless post-hatch), dad and mom of both species feed and defend their young, continuing to raise their offspring long after they fledge. Like some of our own kids after they graduate from high school or college, immature swans and eagles hang out with their parents well past the summer, sometimes right up until the following spring when parents are trying to raise another clutch.     

Among our furred wildlife on the Kenai, red fox dads are arguably the best. While mom gives birth, dad brings home the bacon by providing food to the vixen every 4 to 6 hours until their pups can be left alone for short periods of time. Then both parents hunt, with the vixen returning to nurse the pups during the day. Until their offspring disperse in the fall, dad helps teach his pups to hunt by playing games.

Perhaps the worst dads are brown and black bear boars. After mating, the male not only has very little to do with subsequent raising of the litter, he may even kill his own young if encountered as cubs — a bad dad by most measures. For this reason, sows with young-of-the-year cubs tend to stay away from congregations of bears feeding on salmon. Fortunately, momma bears are notoriously ferocious when defending their cubs, even holding off a predatory male that may be two or three times larger (and may also be the cubs’ dad).

In the insect world, aside from highly social species such as ants and honey bees, parental care of any kind is quite rare and even more so for caregiving by the male. Burying beetles, of which at least two species of the genus Nicrophorus are found on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, are remarkable exceptions.

Over eight hours or so, both parents dig a hole below a dead animal. While doing so, the beetles cover the carcass with antibacterial and antifungal secretions, slowing decay and preventing the smell of rotting flesh from attracting other scavengers. The carcass is formed into a ball, and the remnant fur or feathers are used to line and reinforce a burial crypt. Mom then lays eggs in the soil around the crypt. The larvae hatch after a few days and move into another pit that the beetle parents have dug in the carcass. Both parents feed their young by regurgitating liquid food. Dad will take over sole responsibility of child rearing if mom dies, common in many bird species, but unknown in other insects.

So whatever your take on fatherhood in humans, we’ve got some great examples of great dads among our local wildlife. Happy Father’s Day to all of them!

John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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