The Best Dads in the Animal Kingdom

From the Common Marmoset to Emperor Penguins, these parents go above and beyond.

by Mary Anne Potts
A collage of six animals from the animal kingdom

Embracing their dad bods and sometimes skirting the letter of evolutionary law, the best dads of the animal kingdom have their priorities straight. These devoted fathers follow their natural-born instincts to make sure the next generation has every chance to survive. We asked wildlife biologist and National Geographic Explorer Luke Dollar, father of two human children, to share insights on what we all can learn from their fellow papas out in the wild.

“There are incredible examples of animal dads whose unique biological features enable them to be extraordinary fathers,” says Dollar. Yet as you’ll see in this selection of ten great animal dads, there are quite a few self-appointed dads on this list, a nod to all the admirable adoptive and step-dads out there.

10. Antechinus

Michael Sale

Be careful what you wish for. This little Australian marsupial mouse lives and dies by procreation. The first time he has sex, he can spend up to 14 hours having it with as many partners as possible. He doesn’t eat, drink, or sleep — and it is likely his last act.

He fully exhausts himself so much that his fur starts to fall out, his body starts to disintegrate, he bleeds internally, and his immune system fails. The steroids build up in his blood, which then kill him — an act that amounts to suicidal reproduction in order to pass along his genetic code. “What a way to go,” Dollar remarks.

9. African Wild Dogs

“African wild dogs are probably my favorite species,” says Dollar. Part of the reason for this fondness is that endangered dogs are excellent fathers due to the benefits of pack mentality. The males and non-breeding females go hunting when the pups are in the den, too small and vulnerable to digest hard foods or go outside. The males will go after anything that’s not too big, with impalas making a favorite meal. When they get back to the den, the African wild dogs regurgitate their food.

“They’re individually not particularly robust and strong, but by being in a pack and being remarkably coordinated, it’s amazing how much they can do,” says Dollar.

8. Rhea

Rhea males don’t win dad of the year based on their monogamy, because they’re not. They’re polyamorous — and the large, flightless birds definitely like to spread their wings in a harem of up to 12 females. But after they’ve made it with multiple ladies, they build nests for the eggs of all the impregnated females, incubate the eggs, and raise the chicks on their own. So really, they’re more like seriously devoted single dads.

“While they don’t win the award for partner of the year, they take care of their offspring very well,” says Dollar. “Unfortunately, they do sacrifice some of the eggs as part of their decoys. But dads take care of the chicks for a good six months.”

7. Foxes

There’s a reason foxes live up to their clever, cunning reputation. As neither the top of the food chain nor the bottom, these handsome creatures must always be on the lookout for potential prey and predators. Papa fox plays a crucial role in training the kits for a lifetime of eat-or-be-eaten alertness.

“Foxes are excellent father figures for their growing pups. They stick around and teach them how to be foxes,” says Dollar. They help feed mom when she’s nursing, show their offspring how to hide and forage, and even set up foraging tests for them. “If you’ve ever seen a hungry kid, you know they can’t focus on anything else. Dad fox’s training includes busting the kids when they have stopped looking out for predators.”

6. Praying Mantis

According to urban legend — or is that jungle legend? — the praying mantis female always bites off the head of the male right after climax. Females are known to eat the male either during or after conception, a practice biologists refer to as sexual cannibalism. This does happen, but not always. In reality, the cannibalism occurs 13 to 28 percent of the time, which is much lower than expected, but still uncomfortably high if you are a male praying mantis. “Most likely, the praying mantis dad is not going to be there to raise their young,” says Dollar. “That’s a pretty bold sacrifice they make in the name of conception.”

5. Common Marmoset

“There’s nothing common about the levels of investment made by common marmoset fathers,” says Dollar about the monkey that’s endemic to Brazil. “And you’re not seeing double, the females almost always give birth to fraternal twins — which might have different fathers.”

How does that happen? Like all primates in their subfamily, common marmoset twins share placenta circulation and exchange blood stem cells throughout gestation, which means the fathers can’t tell which baby they fathered, so they help equally. In fact, all the members of the group are supposed to care for all the babies, as well as the dads.

“Any dad that has carried their child, baby bag, stroller, toys, diapers and wipes, spare everything, and car seat knows what a burden that is. Now imagine two newborn babies, and they each weigh around a quarter of your own body weight. There’s nothing diminutive about these little monkeys’ paternal investment.”

4. Northern Jacana

The male Jacana, nicknamed the “Jesus bird” for its habit of walking on lily pads while foraging, is one dedicated dad. First, he builds a nest while the females are running around to find more mates (up to four). After that, he will do almost all of the egg incubating and caring for the young, including guiding them to feed. The father is an excellent example of a loyal, patient homemaker. He even chooses to stay with the nest, long after the females leave for migration.

3. Giant Water Bug

Beauty is not a requirement to be a good dad. Case in point: the giant water bug. What this insect lacks in looks, he makes up for in devotion. The female lays up to 150 eggs, then she glues them to the daddy before she takes off, leaving him to rear the youngsters. During the three weeks before they hatch, he protects them and takes time to dry them out of the water so they don’t get moldy. And if you see one in the wild, stay away, these daddies deliver one of the most painful bites of the insect world.

2. Emperor Penguins

“Fatherhood for emperor penguins is a full celebration of the dad bod,” says Dollar. These fathers embrace their parental duties at great personal sacrifice. Once their egg is laid and the mothers return to the ocean to feed, the fathers take over. Their dad bod belly fat, called a brood flap, keeps the egg, perched on their feet, warm while the dad patiently waits. While tending his egg in the frigid Antarctic breeding grounds, the father will lose up to half his body weight. Once the egg hatches, the food-deprived papa regurgitates what’s left in his stomach to sustain the chick until mom returns to take over the nurturing and dad can go find a meal. Parenting at its finest.

1. Seahorses

Seahorses are often hailed as the top dads in the animal kingdom. There’s good reason: They, too, have a dad bod — a brood or egg pouch which allows them to fulfill their fatherly duties. After days of predawn dances, which can last eight hours, the male and female intertwine their tails and the creatures actually mate. After, the mother deposits her eggs in the father’s pouch and from there, the male seahorse gestates the babies. His labor can last multiple days and afterwards, the dad sticks around. “The conception was merely the beginning of his own energetic requirement and physiological journey of having offspring,” says Dollar. Dads will then do it all over again with the same mate, remaining monogamous for their lives. Truly, this is fatherhood at its best.