With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, it’s a good time to look at the role of the male in several species that live in this region.
Evolutionary ecologists explain that life’s overriding goal is to get your genes out there with a minimum of invested time and energy. Hence, most male animals move on after mating, leaving the female to do most of the child rearing. However, the name of the game when it comes to evolution is change.
Therefore, living conditions that require more effort by both parents create different behavior in many species. There are several animals that have adapted to their environment by adopting different roles as parents.
The red fox is an attentive mate and father. For the first month after birth, his mate, or vixen, must stay in the den with the pups, so he must provide her with food every four to six hours. As the pups grow, the male fox plays an active role in teaching the pups, as well as playing with them.
The father takes the lead in the “tough love” strategy of reducing the pups’ food supply while teaching them survival skills. They bury surplus food near the den and disguise it with twigs and leaves to teach the pups to sniff and forage. They also have been seen to play ambush, as if teaching them to escape from predators. Fox fathers show a great deal of enthusiasm when it comes to their pups. Researchers have observed fathers waiting for the mother to fall asleep so they could call their pups out secretly to play.
Amphibians are not known as being the most involved dads. However, the male barking frog, which lives in the Southwest in slightly warmer climates, is the only frog known to pitch in. His contribution? Staying near the eggs to wet them down with his urine when they dry out.
The great horned owl is probably the hardest working dad. In the late winter, when females lay their eggs, the male’s marathon role begins. While she stays on the nest to keep the eggs from freezing, he brings her food (mice, squirrels, rats and birds). The female owl is larger than the male by 25 percent, so essentially, he must provide food for himself, as well as another larger adult. Then, when the owlets hatch, he must add two to three hatchlings to his list of dependents for at least a month.
As far as insects go, the giant water bug definitely shoulders the responsibility for his species. The female essentially glues 150 or more eggs to his back, making him solely responsible for them. He cleans the eggs, executes deep-knee bends to aerate them, sits at the edge of the water to dry them and get rid of parasites, and moves around with them to escape predators.
The eggs triple in size over the three weeks he carries them on his back. The pinchers on the front of the water bug are very painful. He will protect the eggs by delivering a healthy pinch that is extremely painful. His nickname is “toe-biter” for this very reason.
Although no longer present in Colorado, it is worth mentioning that the grizzly bear wins the award for the worst father in the animal kingdom. The male grizzly actually kills his cubs. He goes after any cubs in his home range, not discriminating against his own offspring. This is one of the reasons that females are so ferocious in protecting their young.
So, this Father’s Day, be grateful we are part of the human species and that fathers are active in both the happiness and hardships of family life. And, of course, be glad that you are not a grizzly bear as you celebrate this day devoted to fathers.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.