Some dads in the animal world – like lions (lazy) and grizzly bears (eat their own cubs) – have a deserved reputation as bad ‘uns. But some of nature’s fathers go above and beyond.
Let’s face it, animal dads aren’t always the best role models. Many of nature’s father figures are all too willing to take a full part in the conception process, and entirely unwilling to take any part in the raising of the resulting offspring.
But that’s by no means the whole story. In fact, look hard enough and the natural world throws up a whole host of really quite excellent dads. Here’s a few that could teach us all a thing or two about dedication, self-denial and, um, getting pregnant.
Rheas are large flightless birds and, to put it bluntly, after she’s popped out the eggs, mum is done!
That’s right, dad is sole incubator of up to 50 eggs (he has loads of mates, so that’s the upside) for 40 days. When they hatch, good old pop then looks after the whole brood until the chicks are ready to look after themselves. He does it all on his own, even chasing females away who take too close in an interest in the young.
And does he get any thanks? He does not.
He’s the involved dad we all want to be. Red Fox dads spend the weeks after the happy event hunting to feed mum, who is tucked up in the den with the cubs. When they get older, he calls them away to play while the female gets a rest.
He indulges in rough and tumble mostly, but male red foxes have been seen hiding food for the cubs to find. This is educational play, with dad teaching his cubs the rudiments of hunting, scavenging and escaping from bigger bad guys like wolves and bears.
Or to put it another way, it’s the foxy equivalent of a kick about in the park followed by a go on the self checkout at Tesco.
Another flightless dad who does the right thing. When the female lays her eggs, mum and dad take turns incubating, with dad usually taking the night shift (perhaps because his darker colouring makes him less visible to predators).
When the little Os are born, dad will attack anything that threatens them, as well as teaching the little ‘uns to feed, forage and run really, really fast.
And you thought he just stuck his head in the sand. Shame on you!
You probably know about these little guys already (they’re never off the telly), but it’s a story that bears repeating.
To set the scene, Emperor Penguins live in the Antarctic, perhaps the most inhospitable place on earth. To make things worse, the female lays her single egg on freezing permafrost at the start of the Antarctic winter. Exhausted, she quickly transports the egg onto the feet of her partner, and waddles off to feed.
That sounds pretty fair, right? Well yes, except it takes her 65 days to waddle the 80km or so to the ocean, gobble a belly full of fish and then waddle back. During that time the fluffy mass of dads and chicks are forced to huddle together to preserve just enough heat to see most of them through the almost unbearable Antarctic winter.
This is a little miracle in lots of ways, but what’s especially heartening is the behaviour of the dads in the midst of this unimaginable cold. Not only do they protect their hairless chicks, they also continually circulate so that everyone gets a turn in the huddle’s warm middle, and everyone gets a turn on its freezing, wind-battered perimeter.
Two months on, mum finally gets back from the all-you-can-eat buffet, full of apologies and excuses, and dad gets a turn. You can’t say he hasn’t earned it.
Incredible though the penguin papas are, the DaddiLife award for going above and beyond in the cause of raising kids must go to the humble seahorse.
These tiny equine-featured sea creatures bob around in the ocean minding their own business, going where the tide takes them (literally), and generally taking it easy. It’s a good life, if a simple one, right up until the point the male finds a mate and partners up. Then it goes all kinds of crazy.
To cut a long story short, the seahorse is the only species in which the male gets properly pregnant. After a brief courtship. the female delivers up to 1500 eggs into the male’s ‘brood pouch’, and she doesn’t even buy dinner first. There he fertilises them, before finding a plant to cling to for the entire gestation period, which lasts a few weeks. He gives birth to live young, and then swims off to find his mate again and the whole cycle begins afresh.
So thank you, good dads of the animal kingdom, for showing us that human fatherhood, for all its trials and tribulations, isn’t the puke-splattered hell we sometimes think it is. Spare a thought for the uncomplaining Emperor Penguin, braced against the icy wind, and suddenly changing the occasional nappy doesn’t seem so bad.