Male silverback gorillas, with their muscular chest and sharp teeth, emanate raw power—but they can also be total softies when it comes to their offspring.
Some evidence suggests that might be part of what makes the 400-pound apes so attractive to females in their group. “We think what’s going on is that females prefer the males who are nice to kids, and spend time with kids,” says Stacy Rosenbaum, a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan who studies social behavior among central Africa’s mountain gorillas. (Read why male gorillas really beat their chests.)
The sacrifices of animal mothers are well documented (take the octopus that watched over her eggs for nearly five years), while males’ efforts often go unnoticed. That’s in part because people tend to be familiar only with the extremes of animal fatherhood, says Rosenbaum.
“You’ve got everything from seahorse fathers, who famously do 100 percent of the parenting work, to those mammals who just mate and leave and that’s it,” she says. But “as we get more and more observations on different species over long periods of time, we are increasingly appreciating that the story is really complex.”
Here are some animal dads whose hard work in raising the next generation often goes unnoticed.
When the rains come, African bullfrogs surface from a state of underground torpor and begin a frenetic breeding season. Males use mating calls to attract one or more females, fertilizing her eggs while chasing off, or even killing, any rivals.
Successful males find themselves in charge of several thousand eggs, laid in tiny ephemeral pools. They take care of the eggs—and later the tadpoles—for weeks, driving off predators such as snakes and making sure the young have enough water to stay alive. (Meet the single dads of the animal world.)
If the pool begins to dry up under the blazing sun, dads herd their charges to deeper, cooler water. They even dig irrigation ditches to connect disappearing pools to larger ponds to deliver water to their offspring—or providing an escape route.
Such around-the-clock parenting comes at a cost to the next generation. Because they remain exclusively with their offspring, male bullfrogs will snack on a few tadpoles
Courtship among crested porcupines can be, well, prickly. But once a pair has connected, they form an affectionate, lifelong partnership that’s rare in the animal kingdom, says Emiliano Mori, an evolutionary biologist at the National Research Council of Italy in Rome.
“The pair bond is kept throughout their lives by copulation events throughout the year, even without penetration and without procreative aims,” says Mori, who studies the species in its native Italy. (See photos of all-star animal fathers.)
This tender approach extends to their young, which the parents raise as a team.
“Porcupine cubs emerge from dens and start to explore the environment together with both parents,” Mori says. “And they are always kept between the mum and the dad.”
Red fox dads take family life seriously. The Northern Hemisphere carnivores form strong, somewhat monogamous bonds with their mates and fiercely defend their territory against invading males.
Once mom gives birth, she and her pups stay safely hidden in the den while dad goes out every few hours to bring back food. When the pups emerge from the den, he becomes an attentive teacher, patiently showing his young how to hunt and pounce. (Take our quiz on animal dads.)
For instance, fox dads give their kits “lessons” by hiding food for them to find and playing ambush games that teach them how to avoid predators.
Among the limited number of fish species that provide parental care, about half of them, including the 30 species of clownfish, leave such duties to the dad.
The male clown anemone fish, Amphiprion ocellaris, will draw in females by clearing a tidy piece of seafloor real estate near a sea anemone, the stinging coral reef dwellers with whom these fish have a symbiotic relationship.
Once he’s hooked a female, she’ll lay eggs in his nest, which he’ll fertilize. The male then guards the eggs until they hatch, fanning the nest to keep them oxygenated and cleaning them of any parasites. (Read how light pollution can harm clownfish eggs.)
Research shows that the male clownfish’s nurturing behavior is spurred by a hormone, similar to the role oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone”) plays in human parenting.
Portly penguin providers
Adélie penguin males use rocks to create beautiful nests for females, which often try out several nests before making their final selection, says Emma Marks at New Zealand’s University of Auckland.
“I have seen young males build nests out of remaining penguin bones and wings, which was pretty macabre but was the only material available,” Marks says by email. “Not surprisingly, they didn’t get a mate!”
Prospective dads must not only be good homebuilders; they also must sound like dads who can go the distance. A male with more body fat produces a different pitch when making a mating call, and research shows females prefer these portly penguins. That’s because bigger males have more energy reserves to fast while incubating eggs, making them more reliable co-parents.
Once a female lays her eggs, both parents take turns incubating the eggs for long periods. After the chicks hatch, dad brings them nourishing meals of regurgitated fish and krill.
Though wandering albatrosses spend much of their lives at sea, they always return home to the same island and lifelong partner. Native to the Pacific, these long-lived birds produce a single, precious egg every other year. (Read about a 70-year-old Laysan albatross mom.)
Albatross dads choose the nest location, and the parents jointly incubate the egg and raise the chick for about a year. During that time, the youngster depends entirely on its parents for food, with dad’s size and hunting prowess making him the primary breadwinner.
An albatross dad may raise many chicks over his 50-year life span—long-term parenting that’s mostly unmatched by any species, including our own.