Thursday, October 29, 2020

Eggs and Equity

Recently on a wildlife program in the PLANET EARTH series I viewed a segment about clownfish. In addition to their sexual mutability, which enables the largest male in a group to transform to female if the adult female dies, they display interesting parental behavior. Clownfish live in symbiotic partnerships with sea anemones, nesting among the anemone's tentacles, deadly to most other sea life. The anemone "fortress" shelters the fertilized eggs, for which the male takes responsiblity, tending and guarding them. If the dominant female doesn't find his level of care acceptable, though, she'll reject him in favor of one of the rival males lurking in wait. So the devoted father in FINDING NEMO is true to life in a way.

As far as paternal child care in marine life is concerned, everybody knows about the prime example, the seahorse. The female lays eggs in the male's pouch, where he fertilizes them and carries them until they hatch. Mr. Seahorse, not his mate, undergoes pregnancy. They appear to practice monogamy through at least one breeding season.

On another episode of the same series (PLANET EARTH, BLUE PLANET, etc.) a tiny tree frog is shown depositing his mate's fertilized eggs in small water reservoirs in leaves. To provide nourishment, the female lays an unfertilized egg in the water drop, while the male guards the eggs and tadpoles.

Most people have probably watched documentaries about penguin parents raising their young on the Antarctic ice. The father keeps the single egg warm on top of his feet while his mate is feeding out at sea. When she returns, she relieves him and takes over the care of the chick while he goes in search of food.

Some birds, rather than tending their chicks as monogamous partners, practice polyandry. The female controls a large territory in which she mates with several males, each one incubating a clutch of eggs in a different nest. She helps each of her mates defend his individual nesting territory.

These animals and many others illustrate the fact that in oviparous species the female isn't "tied down" by pregnancy and lactation. When the young hatch from eggs, either parent or both can guard and care for the eggs and offspring. If otherwise convenient, the female can leave parenting duties entirely to the male without jeopardizing the welfare of their children. Therefore, a society of intelligent, oviparous aliens might practice very different sexual and child-rearing customs from ours. In a high-tech culture, the option of sheltering the eggs in an incubator, terrarium, or aerated aquarium (depending on the species) could even allow both parents to combine childrearing with other pursuits. They might have completely egalitarian gender roles or even female dominance.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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