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The Animal Good Fathers

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 116 (Oct 2015)
Author: Green Power

In nature, the males are usually the ones charged with the responsibility for spreading the genes as much as possible; that's why they spend a lot of effort in finding mates. The females, on the other hand, tend to focus on nurturing the young, so as not to waste the enormous energy and nutrition consumed during pregnancy and reproduction. The two sexes have their respective functions in the reproduction of offspring. However, in some cases, the roles are reversed, and here we find some good fathers of the animal kingdom!

Family Syngnathidae

The male seahorse is the best-known good father figure in nature. It even takes on the job of “pregnancy” and reproduction! In mating, the female seahorse lays eggs in the brood pouch of the male's abdomen. Then, the male will take care of the eggs until they are hatched. Afterwards, it gives birth to the baby fish. As for other members of family Syngnathidae, including pipehorses, pipefishes and seadragons, it is also the males who are responsible for nurturing the juveniles. There are different structures for different species: some have half-open brood pouches in the abdomen, some have the fertilised eggs attached to the abdomen or tail surface. In Hong Kong, two species of seahorses and a pipefish can be found; they are Longnose Seahorse (Hippocampus trimaculatus), Spotted Seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) and Seaweed Pipefish (Syngnathus schlegeli).

Greater Painted Snipe

In the bird world, most males attract the opposite sex with their bright or eye-catching feathers. In the mating season, the males compete for the best territory to court the females. After mating, the hatching of eggs and feeding of juveniles are sometimes shared by both parents or undertaken by the females alone. Greater Painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis) is exceptional in terms of its appearance and role. The females are brighter in colour, while the males are dull. After mating and laying eggs, the females will leave and look for other males for mating. The males, on the other hand, will hatch the eggs and nurture the baby birds until they are mature. When encountering an enemy, the father bird will sacrifice himself in drawing the enemy’s attention to protect the youngsters. Greater Painted Snipe is a rare wetland species in Hong Kong, found mostly at Long Valley and Kam Tin.


There are nine species of Apogonidae (Cardinalfishes) in Hong Kong. The family is notable for mouthbrooding. In the egg laying period, special mouthparts develop in the male. During mating, the male will open up the mouth, which holds the eggs, until they are hatched. During up to a week of incubation, the male stops eating and will turn the eggs in its mouth from time to time to ensure they are clean and receive sufficient oxygen. Even before mating, the male will practice opening his mouth wide in preparation for the job of being a good father!

In mating, the female seahorse (on the left) lays eggs in the brood pouch of the male's abdomen (on the right). The abdomen is swollen.
Image "Seahorse Love" by John Dalton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Father seahorse during “pregnancy”
Image "Dad to be" by "Owen Evans is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
In contrast to other birds, the female Greater Painted Snipe (above) is bright while the male (below) is dull.
Image "彩鷸" by "Afi Chen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Image "彩鷸" by "Afi Chen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Father Greater Painted Snipe staying close to his juveniles.
Little fish in the mouth of father fish. In the photograph is Red-striped Cardinalfish (Ostorhinchus margaritophorus) found in mid and western Pacific waters.

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