Presenting: Paternal Primates

This year in honor of Father’s Day we are having a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day event at the zoo and giving you a chance to name a Houston Toad in honor of Dad.

We have a lot of dads here at the Zoo and they come in (literally!) all shapes and sizes.  In the animal kingdom there is a great deal of variation in the level of paternal care given by dads.   Male seahorses, for instance, carry the eggs of their offspring inside their bodies, then hatch them and give birth to their live babies.  I know, weird, right?
Male seahorses carry the eggs of their young and then give birth to them. This is called ovoviviparity. Use THAT word in your next scrabble game!
Then there are the multitudes of dads in the animal kindom that “Conceive and Leave” as my colleague put it and have zero involvement in the care or rearing of their young.   Many other species fall somewhere between those polar opposites.  
But this blog isn’t about fish, even ones as amazing and mind-blowing as seahorses.  No, this is a blog about primates.  Otherwise I would have to change the title, and frankly it took me several long, agonizing seconds to come up with this one.  
The natural history of a species dictates the paternal and maternal roles, and within the primate group, the entire spectrum of care is exhibited.  Primates are nothing if not adaptable, though, so even within a species, individuals may show more or less paternal care than is usual or expected.   
Orangutans, for example, generally have little or nothing do do with their offspring.  Our male Doc, however, not only tolerates, but often enjoys the company of his son Solaris.  (Doc is also the father of our newest baby, Aurora.) Doc and Solaris even wrestle and play together once in a while.
Solaris and his dad Doc have a laugh together.

Some of the smallest primates, on the other hand, make the best dads.  Among the many species of marmosets and tamarins, it’s the dads who carry the kids around and provide day care.  Mom is there to provide milk and attend the PTA meetings, but dad is the main caregiver and transporter.

A pygmy marmoset dad and baby. Caution: The cuteness of this photo could cause permanent retinal damage!

And speaking of Dad-Of-The-Year awards, siamang dads are well-deserving.  Like tamarins and marmosets, siamang dads are very involved in the lives of their youngsters.  And since siamangs don’t leave for college until they are eight or nine years old, it’s a fair commitment on dad’s (and mom’s, too) part.  Siamangs dads help moms carry their offspring from about 8 months until about two years,  at which time the kid usually gets her first car and is embarrassed to be seen with either parent.

Our male siamang Boomer sadly recently passed away, but he was a prime example of a great siamang dad to his daughters Raya and Leela. Baby Leela plays on top of Dad Boomer while Mom Jambi looks on.


Siamangs and tamarins are (mostly) monogamous, so the male can pretty much count on his mate’s offspring having his genes.  It is to his advantage, then, to put a lot of effort into making sure the kid prospers and goes on to marry the football captain.

Chimps, on the other hand, live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, and since the ladies don’t “limit their options”, so to speak,  it’s basically anybody’s guess who the kids belong to.   Most of the time, child care is up to mom, but as the kids grow and learn how to be chimps, the involvement of the adult males is important.  Big brothers especially, play with and look out for their younger siblings, but most big males, even the tough guys, enjoy playing with the youngsters. 

Willie the Kid and two adult males play with each other. One of them is his dad, but since we didn't show them the genetic test results, they don't know that. In the foreground, Willie's mom Lulu wonders when she might expect dinner to be served .

It has even been recorded more than once in the wild that seemingly unrelated adult males have “adopted” very young kids when they have lost their moms.  They will protect and even carry the infants through the forest, looking out for them as best they can.  Now if that doesn’t warm your heart this Father’s Day, nothing will! 

Happy Father’s Day to all you Dad’s out there looking out for your little ones!

Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year–name a Houston Toad after him!  With your gift, you help support the Houston Toads, a critically endangered species native to Texas.  Click here to learn more about Houston Toads and how you can further the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts that help ensure their survival.

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