Snail Love: Paternity Doesn’t Matter

Working for The Nature Conservancy with its emphasis on conservation of whole systems and global solutions, I rarely read about snail breeding behavior. But a recent study caught my eye: Researchers found that male marine snails are the ones to care for offspringand often, those offspring aren’t even their own.

While paternal care isn’t terribly unusual in the animal kingdom (think sea horses), it is relatively rare to find males caring for progeny that aren’t their own.

I found the study striking for two other reasons:

  1. While the study is a nice combination of behavioral experiment and genetic analysis (although oddly on different populations), the language seems intentionally provocative, for example describing the males as “caring” and “cuckolds.” I don’t know why it seems any stranger to liken a snail to a cuckoo bird than it would a person, but the effect is anthropomorphic and judgment-laden. There is nothing in the methods that suggests that the snails were given psychological tests, a Gottman Relationship Institute “love lab” for invertebrates.
  2. The article is concurrent with the debate about infant care and working families, where human fathers and mothers, at least in the United States, need an infrastructure overhaul to function in the new not-so-growing economy.

Natural history has fallen somewhat out of favor in the annals of conservation science, but this article demonstrates one of the reasons it persiststhrough examining the psychology of other species we still have a safe-zone to examine ourselves.

The study: Kamel, S. J., Grosberg, R. K. (2012), Exclusive male care despite extreme female promiscuity and low paternity in a marine snail. Ecology Letters. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01841.x

(Image: Male snail (Solenosteira macrospira) on the left is covered with eggs, female snail on the right. Source: P. B. Marko/Ecology Letters.)

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