Today, June 18, is Father’s Day. Though this special day is designed to honor human dads, it’s also a good time to recognize some of the more dedicated fathers in the wildlife world.

The roles of mothers are touted much more frequently than those of fathers in nature, but paternal nurturing isn’t a completely lost art in the animal kingdom.
Today, June 18, is Father’s Day. Though this special day is designed to honor human dads, it’s also a good time to recognize some of the more dedicated fathers in the wildlife world.
For starters, let’s not give wildlife dads too bad of a rap because in nature, gender roles are based entirely on ensuring the survival of the species. It may not seem proper from a human’s cultural perspective to have a female parent stay with the offspring and teach them life skills while the male goes off to seek another mate. However, from the perspective of sustaining a species – a perspective that factors in predation and natural mortality and, as a result, is about producing the greatest number of offspring possible – it makes perfect sense to have one parent spend most of its time caring for young because this allows the other parent to be involved in creating more offspring. This gives the species as a whole the best chance of survival.
If you’re still having trouble grasping the concept of paternal devotion in Missouri’s wildlife world, don’t worry – there are examples around us.
Let’s start with a great example of a dad who cares – the male water bug (genus Belostoma). These creatures, which are also called toe biters or giant water bugs, are found in slow-moving streams and in vegetated areas of ponds and wetlands around the state. They’re best known for their painful bite, but the parental care the males provide also stands out. After mating occurs, females lay eggs on the backs of their mate and the males carry the eggs until they hatch. This brood, which hatches in one to three weeks, can number up to 150 eggs. While carrying the eggs, the male occasionally performs a sort of “knee-bend” exercise to aerate the eggs and also sometimes sits at the surface to periodically dry them and rid them of parasites. Waterbugs can have up to three broods so dads are kept busy throughout the summer.
A number of bird fathers help to raise their broods, but the Wilson’s phalarope would probably win the Father’s Day prize in the avian world. The male of this shorebird species, which migrates through Missouri in spring and fall, incubates the eggs and broods the offspring. (To complete this bird species’ gender role-reversal, the female also aggressively courts the male.)
Another bird that earns paternal accolades is the male great horned owl. Because great horned owl females lay eggs in winter, they must stay on their eggs constantly to keep them from freezing. So the male owl is constantly foraging for food for his mate and himself. When the eggs hatch, the task becomes even more difficult because the mother has to stay with two or three hatchlings that are too young to maintain their own body temperatures. As a result, Papa owl has to find food for himself, his mate and the offspring. This routine goes on for about a month before the mother owl begins to hunt and provide food, too.
Male red foxes supply both abundant love and tough love. For the first month after the birth of his pups, the male will provide for the mother and young every four to six hours and will also frequently play with the pups and they get more active. However, when fox pups are about three months old, the dad’s love takes a stern turn. The male fox begins to bury food close to the den and covers it with leaves and twigs. This may seem harsh, but it teaches the pups to sniff out food and forage for themselves.
Though they are found nowhere near Missouri, no discussion of fatherhood duties in nature is complete without mentioning the seahorse. In what is one of the most unique parenting role reversals in nature, the female seahorse inserts her eggs into the male and these embryos develop inside the male for 10-30 days (depending on the species). This offspring-carrying period concludes with the male experiencing a series of contractions and expelling the newborns into the water.
Moving back to fish and wildlife that can be found in this state, people can learn more about the habits of Missouri wildlife at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880