The Evolution of Fatherhood

FF: I thought I’d let Higgs handle this post, since he has strong opinions on the matter of fathering.

Higgs: Happy Male Parental Investment Day. That’s what Father’s day is really all about, after all. Parenting is an interesting evolutionary phenomenon and quite foreign to us male cats. I don’t know how many Higglets I might have “fathered” during my nights as a free-ranging intact adult male alley cat.

We cats get away with hit and run mating, but we pay for it in other ways. Out on the streets, life is one series of fights with other male cats. One way or another it’s always about the chance to mate. Hanging out with kittens might be more fun than endless bloody street fights, but that’s not what evolution handed us.

In many birds and some mammals, the offspring wouldn’t survive without the care of two parents, and often the male works hard to help feed and nurture his progeny. Some fish fathers go to even greater lengths, taking on most or all the duties of parenthood themselves. The most famous examples are seahorse males carrying their offspring around in a pouch. I would find that quite encumbering. 

A more mysterious fatherly fish is the nurseryfish, which has been a challenge to study because it lives in crocodile-infested waters off Northern Australia and won’t breed in captivity. Male nurseryfish have evolved a special hook they use to carry their fertilized eggs on their heads. Tim Berra of Ohio State University has braved the crocs to study these fatherly fish, and his findings will be the subject of an upcoming column, so I won’t give too much away.

In some species, apparently, being a good father is necessary for getting female attention. I learned about this from reading one of my human’s previous columns featuring Mark Sabaj, an ichthyologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences. That poses a big catch-22 if you have to be a father to become a father.

In sticklebacks, he said, males will steal eggs from other males. In one type of minnow, a male will oust a rival from his nest, treating most of the other guy's eggs as caviar but leaving behind just enough to fool a female into thinking he's a nice single dad. I could see the point of carrying eggs around if it increased my chances of getting more sex (back before my contraceptive procedure, of course).

The downside of male parental care is the risk that you are investing your energy caring for another male’s progeny. Fish can just grab the eggs as soon as they’re fertilized, but in us mammals it’s more complicated. Evolutionary psychologists sometimes talk about short-term and long-term mating, the long-term type often leading to some form of offspring care. Humans are fascinating because there’ so much flexibility in their behavior. Even the same male human might mate like an alley cat in one instance, and then become a devoted dad in another.

And so happy Father’s Day. I can’t send a greeting to my own father because I have no idea who he is. He could be a cat of any color. I got my orange coloring from a gene on the X chromosome I inherited from my mom. I do hope he’s doing okay wherever he is. Thanks for letting me express my views, Higgs.