It was International Men’s Day a few days ago so some appreciation for males who dominate parental roles in the animal kingdom seems extremely relevant. Although, this is less of a core science topic, it breaches into the ecology sect of biology which has proven to be equally as important to our lives as other aspects of biology, like medicine, that hog the spotlight.
GlamSci has a massive role in encouraging young girls to pursue careers in STEM-based subjects because the industry is still so heavily concentrated with male figures. I am a feminist and in order to seek social equality, we need to encourage men to show their stereotypically “feminine” side as well as encouraging women to take up their stereotypically “masculine” side. So the aim of this post is to show that parental roles are a social construct and nature has an entirely different approach to our own.
The most extreme role of males in parenting are the Syngnathidae family: seahorses, sea-dragons and pipefishes. Involved in pregnancy, childbirth and looking after the young (biological and behavioural roles), they are the only animals to undergo male pregnancy. Pregnancy in male seahorses (this is similar for sea-dragons and pipefishes) starts from mating with a female. The female will insert unfertilised eggs into the males brood pouch, located on the belly, using their ovipositor (the brood pouch is similar to a kangaroo’s pouch). The male then fertilises the eggs and carries them for 2-3 weeks until they are released.
In humans, females provide nutrients and keep the foetus alive through the placenta. This function is needed in order to be classified as pregnancy. More research has been done and it has been found that seahorses do provide nutrients to their offspring whilst they are growing in the brood pouch. The males provide nutrients, osmoregulation (maintaining osmotic pressure and movement of water), gas exchange and waste removal, all in a similar way that placenta does. Male pregnancy is an extreme example but it is interesting to think that other animals, including humans, could have evolved in a similar way.
Behavioural habits of male animals:
Anyone who has seen Happy Feet, knows the role of male Emperor penguins in nurturing the hatched egg. They have a deep attachment to their eggs. To the extent that if their egg dies or is lost, they will try to attack another parent and steal their egg. A heart-breaking reality for both the attacker and the victim (both of whom have now lost an egg).
Emperor penguins will keep their eggs warm by balancing them on their feet and covering the egg with feathered skin. The feathered skin is sometimes refereed to as a brood pouch as well (although, this is not pregnancy). The female will be hunting for fish whilst this happens, looking for food to eat and to bring back home. For around two months, the male will not eat because they can not leave their egg alone to withstand the turbulent weather of Antarctica. When the females finally return, they give the (now hatched) baby penguins their food by regurgitating it. The male is given nothing so he know has to go hunt for his own food.
Water bugs are very important for nurturing the females eggs. The female will lay her eggs on the males back and leave him to it. He is left alone to ensure his offspring are healthy. He does this by staying near the surface of the water, so that the eggs get more oxygen to develop. This is a behavioural change but it has a similar outcome to the gas exchange by the placenta in humans.
Other animals, particularly gorillas, have been shown to ‘babysit’ infants that are not even their own children. Usually, due to evolution, mothers and fathers will concentrate on raising their own children to ensure their genes are passed on. However, male gorillas have taken the role of father for many children by letting them climb on their backs or helping them to eat. In a way, the role of the male has gone beyond evolutionary behaviour and towards relationship building.
From all of these examples, I hope it is evident that there is not one gender role in nature. A male can both hunt and nurture, just hunt, just nurture or even, in the case of the Syngnathidae family, give birth to children.