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Humans can learn from piscine parenting

Some parents are super protective, some are marginally attentive and some are nowhere to be found. While humans may have specific views on what is good parenting, in the fish world, emotions and opinions have nothing to do with it. Some fish incubate eggs internally, some have live births, and then there are those that release eggs externally. Within this group, parenting also varies.

Broadcast spawning fish, like rockfish, release eggs and sperm in the water that disappear into the soup. Survival odds are based on sheer numbers of spawn. Then there are fish like schooling silversides such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and smelts that deposit sticky eggs onto algae, like the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), or hard substrates like rock. After the brief spawning recess, parents return to their school without a backward glance. Having gypsy parents places the burden of survival solely on the unprotected brood stuck behind. To even out the playing field against predators, silverside roe develop and hatch as larvae within a few days.

At the other end of the parenting spectrum, fish such as painted greenlings (Oxylebius pictus), rockpool blennies (Hypsoblennius gilberti) and garibaldis (Hypsypops rubicundus) guard their deposited young until hatching, which generally takes a couple of weeks. Dads are sole caretakers. They are all conscientious, but garibaldi dads go the extra mile because they groom a nest for the season. After females deposit their eggs, he remains to defend his young from predators via verbal and physical displays.

The take-home message here is that, in the fish world, what defines a responsible parent is not necessarily the same as what is expected of human parents. I must say, though, from what I read in the news, some fish parents should be role models for humans.

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to