Humans require involved fathers for healthy child development. But, with one in three U.S. children growing up without a father figure, it seems we could learn a thing or two from the super dads in the animal kingdom.
According to a recent Smithsonian article, bat-eared foxes are among only 10-percent of mammals that regularly provide paternal care to their young. Juxtapose this with the clownfish, which is one of the 20 percent of fish that raise their young, half of which do so as virtually single dads.
Let’s look at those foxy dads first. The amount of time bat-eared fox fathers spend with their young — grooming, playing, and teaching them how to hunt — is directly related to kit survival, even more so than their time with their mothers or nutrition. And that’s really saying something.
Now let’s look at those fishy dads. While Finding Nemo wasn’t remotely a documentary on clownfish, in one area where it wins awards in scientific accuracy is in the fish father-young relationship. Clownfish dads really do dote on their fry. The role of clownfish females is pretty much limited to laying eggs — every two weeks for 30 years. Males are synced to this cycle, so they get real practiced to fatherhood!
So, what’s this got to do with human fathers? Turns out that the neurochemistry changes that occur in males of all vertebrates as they transition into dads is virtually the same — their brains more resemble those of moms.
In this study, both males and females of mammals that provide care to young undergo system-wide hormonal changes as they move into parenthood. Oxytocin, vasopressin, testosterone, estrogen, prolactin, and glucocorticoids are just a few of the hormones that receive major shifts in response to procreation.
In males of any given vertebral species with paternal caregiving traits, fluctuations in these same hormones mimic the variations in their mates. Fascinatingly, unlike females whose hormonal changes are triggered by the physiological experiences of pregnancy and birth (and, in mammals, lactation), these hormonal changes in males are instead provoked by caregiving experience. Clownfish fathers, for example, are triggered merely by setting eyes on a new batch of eggs.
New fathers among mammals may be likewise triggered by the sights, smells, and touch of their newborn infant, or even through exposure to their mate’s maternal behaviors before the birth of their young. It’s been well-documented how testosterone levels of human fathers plummet during their partner’s pregnancies and early postpartum period, with estrogen levels rising instead. This change corresponds with the new father’s increased desire to nurture his babies.
Of course, with only 10 percent of male mammalian species being the paternal care-giving type, this begs the question of why. Biologists have found that the likelihood of paternal caregiving in species is significantly correlated with those that are monogamous — meaning they mate for life. In the majority of monogamous animal pairs, the father plays a critical role in caring for the young.
So it’s not such a stretch that to have an involved human father, we must first have a committed partner. But I think the dynamic reinforces itself — that an involved father is more likely to be a committed partner, too. Transitioning to new parenthood can be a steep learning curve, in every way for both parents, but adding a new baby is easier if partners have each other to lean on. And our kids benefit so much more when both mothers and fathers are involved.
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