Vail Daily column: Dads on the wild side
June 14, 2014
On this annual day of tribute to fathers, it seems only right to devote some time to honor dads of all shapes and sizes. My own father always seemed a little old-fashioned to me, and I remember getting in trouble and having to "wait until my dad got home" for my punishment. I knew it was not going to be good. In the animal world, though, it could be even worse.
For bear cubs, "Wait until your dad gets home" has an entirely different meaning. Since the odds are good that a given cub is not theirs, adult male bears will generally try to attack and kill any bear cubs they encounter. The ultimate purpose here, of course, is to mate with the mama bear and create offspring that are definitely theirs. (Suddenly, my own dad doesn't seem quite so tough.)
Populating the Species
In the bulk of the animal kingdom, especially in the numerous invertebrate species and lower vertebrates, the reproductive strategy is to produce as many offspring as you can in the hope that some of them survive. Fatherhood essentially amounts to depositing sperm on the eggs at the right time.
For bear cubs, “Wait until your dad gets home” has an entirely different meaning. Since the odds are good that a given cub is not theirs, adult male bears will generally try to attack and kill any bear cubs they encounter. The ultimate purpose here, of course, is to mate with the mama bear and create offspring that are definitely theirs. (Suddenly, my own dad doesn’t seem quite so tough.)
As you progress through the animal kingdom, however, there is a trend toward greater parental investment in care of the young. And while fatherly care in lower animals is rare, it does occur.
Gluttons For Punishment
Most notably, many of us know a little about how seahorses are the only species in which the males actually house the eggs in their body. After the females "impregnate" the male by inserting eggs into his brood pouch through a tube, the male throws his body against a rock or plant to settle the fertilized egg in his pouch. Depending on the species, gestation lasts 10 to 30 days, and the male's body swells from the growth of anywhere between 10 and 300 offspring. Delivery can take hours as the young clumsily free themselves from the pouch. Once the delivery is finished, the male returns to the same partner later that day to mate again. Gluttons for punishment, I guess.
But there are also more local examples of animals with good paternal care. Red foxes seem like quite the happy family as Mom stays in the den to nurse and warm the young kits. The father fox's job is to supply food for his nursing mate, bringing food back to the den every four to six hours until the kits can keep themselves warm. Once the kits are big enough to leave the den, after about three months, fox fathers will teach the kits to hunt on their own by burying extra food and teaching them to forage and pounce. Happy Father's Day, Foxy Loxy!
All kidding aside, dads have an important role to play in the grand cycle of life and death. While their strategies and contributions to fatherhood might vary significantly, every father has a job to do.
Some fathers are only involved during a specific stage of life, while others watch over their young throughout their youth and adolescence. And some fathers, like my own, are always ready to jump in and save the day, no matter how old you are. Thanks, Dad.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. This article is dedicated to my amazingly devoted father, for always reading my articles and for so much else. Thank you, Dad, and Happy Father's Day!