Monday, 4 February 2013

Let's start at the beginning…

'You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel'
The Bloodhound Gang

I never imagined I would start my first blog post proper with a lyric from a Bloodhound Gang song, but I thought it might be illuminating to turn to the animal kingdom for some great and terrible Dads. Can us human Dads feel good about ourselves in comparison?

Here are my top three Dads from nature:

1) The hardhead catfish carries up to 48 eggs in his mouth for two months. How does he eat? He doesn't.
2) Penguins. -40ºc. Enough said.
3) Foxes. Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) fathers are extremely attentive dads in the first few months after their pups are born. As the mother remains in the den with the newborns, the fox dad heads out to hunt and brings back food for the whole family at least a few times each day. These reynards also seem to be keen on keeping young pups active, having been observed playing with them and leading them around their territory. I have to say, though, there's a touch of Chris Rock's 'you feed your kids and play with them? Congratulations, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!' about this one.

A note about seahorses. Everyone goes on about seahorses. Sure, they stow fertilised eggs in their brood pouches, giving them nutrients, oxygen and a cosy environment for 1.5- to 6.5 weeks. However, if a male judges its female mate to be subpar, it will not direct as many nutrients toward the developing eggs that are ensconced in its pouch – and sometimes males will absorb the eggs entirely, using their nutrients as a food source. 

Here are my worst three Dads from nature. This mostly revolves around eating your own young, which is covered in Lesson 1 of Dad school:

1) When newborn bass swim away, their Dad proudly watches them swim into the distance. But if there are stragglers, he swallows them up as a reward to himself for helping the strong ones stay alive.
2) Lions are greedy and lazy. Not content with letting the females do all the hunting and most of the parenting, the male lion is always the first one to eat and often leaves only scraps for the rest of the pride. In lean hunting seasons, an alpha lion will let his wives and children starve first.
3) Assassin bugs. With a name like that, perhaps expectations are not high. All he has to do is protect the eggs, but he tends to eat the ones on the outside edges of the brood, which are otherwise most likely to fall victim to parasitic wasps. This strategy is so hardwired that they do it even in laboratory settings completely devoid of potential parasites. Interestingly, assassin bugs do have a bit of a soft spot – the males are some of the only insects that are willing to adopt broods from other fathers. (They don’t eat any extra eggs when their kids are adopted.)

A special mention must go to the orb-web spider Nephilengys malabarensis. The brilliant Ed Yong describes how the male snaps off his own genitals inside the female and runs away. His severed organ continues to pump sperm into the female (indeed, at a faster rate). This allows him to fertilise her remotely, while denying entry to other males. It also means he's less likely to get eaten, a fate that awaits 75% of males during sex.

Now is that being a good Dad or not? I'm not sure, but if the media is to be believed that's about the sum total contribution of most human Dads. 

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