Tomorrow, many of us will be thinking of our fathers. Father's Day is a chance for us to celebrate all the love, guidance, protection and support that fathers can provide. Of course, it's not just people who have fathers. We share our country with a lot of living creatures who have a range of relationships with their male parent, from the touching to the bizarre. On this Father's Day, let's take a peek at the wonderful and wacky world of some of T&T's other daddies.
In the strictest biological sense, it doesn't take a lot for a male to become a father. Absentee dads are common in the animal kingdom— many sow their seed and leave without further ado. In the bird world, many species are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different) and, often, the males are much prettier. They use their good looks and/or flashy behaviour to impress the ladies. These saga boys have to put on quite a show just to get noticed.
For example, the golden-headed manakin (Pipra erythrocephala erythrocephala) is a small songbird found in Trinidad's forests (Tobago has the equally beautiful and enthusiastic blue-backed manakin). The gentlemen of this species sport a bright yellow head and black body that stand out in a green forest. The ladies are coloured a much more cryptic olive-green. In addition to their flashy colouring, the prospective fathers gather in an area known as a lek where each male puts on an impressive, zippy, hopping and flying display. They first have to show their skills before the ladies give up the goods. This courtship behaviour can be displayed for as much as 90 per cent of daylight hours.
With their bright colours and outrageous displays, the males are much easier for potential predators to spot. After putting in all of that risk and work, it's perhaps not surprising that the female is responsible for nesting. Ecologists have proposed that this is actually a good thing because the male's beautiful colouration could decrease camouflage of the nests and increase predation. Oh, the curse of beauty!
Not all fathers in the animal kingdom are such deadbeats. Wattled jacanas (Jacana jacana) are a type of wading bird found in and around our rice fields, marshes, swamps and rivers. When it comes to parental care, it's the males who are predominantly responsible for incubation of the eggs and care of the chicks.
Since we're already in the water visiting the jacanas, we might as well check on the frogs. T&T is home to some pretty spectacular amphibians. One species of frog with particularly inspiring fathers is the yellow-throated frog (Mannophryne trinitatis). In this species, the father transports his tadpoles on his back to a nearby stream, literally giving them a piggyback (or froggyback). This little frog is unique to Trinidad (an endemic species) and is unfortunately listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List as being vulnerable to extinction.
Carrying your kids froggyback is quite the feat, but some species take paternal care even further. Way out from the other extreme of deadbeat dad species are the sea horses (Hippocampus sp). Found in T&T's waters, sea horses are known affectionately as the "Mr Moms" of the sea, and they have the maternity gear to prove it. Males have a pouch where fertilised eggs are stored. During the development of these eggs, the father's pouch grows and swells, much like a human mother. The eggs hatch into little, cutsie baby sea horses that he pushes out into the world. What a guy!
This awesome dad also needs our help as his entire genus (all sea horses) is listed in Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of species in the wild.
We can't pay tribute to "Father Nature", Trini-style, without mentioning the ultimate Earth Dad—Papa Bois— known as the guardian of the forest and its creatures. He is one of our more popular folklore characters, often described as an old, hairy yet extremely muscular man, with cloven hoofs, branches sprouting from his beard and a horn hanging from his belt. Stories indicate he is a shape-changer, who can lead hunters deep into dark forests before vanishing and leaving them lost. It is said that Papa Bois is not fond of hunting in and the destruction of his forests—the ultimate environmentalist.
The legend of Papa Bois has inspired the creation of a real-life Papa Bois. Papa Bois Conservation is an active, local environmental advocacy group, working on issues such as lionfish education and eradication, sea turtle protection, and the dangers of plastic pollution.
So on Father's Day, let's give thanks that we share this world with a lot of fathers in all shapes, sizes, colours and species. It'll be a good way to help Papa Bois smile.
—Many thanks to Mike Rutherford (University of the West Indies,
Life Sciences) and John Murphy,
author of one of my favourite books, Amphibians and Reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago, for all their assistance.