Why do we share parenting duties?

Study of birds could reveal how us humans parents care for our babies.

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When it comes to raising offspring, parents will work harder to compensate for a lazy spouse or partner, but they won’t be able to completely make up for the other parent’s lack of effort, say researchers at the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Debrecen. The secret to making your partnership stable is to only partially compensate for a partner’s downfalls – don’t work so hard that their failings are made up for entirely, the study says.

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What might surprise you most is that this comes from bird biologists studying – you guessed it – birds. But the insights birds offer us aren’t as far fetched as they might sound.

The biologists were studying birds to understand how and why they shared parenting duties. In nature, it’s rare for both mum and dad to be involved in raising the kids, except if you’re a bird, a primate (that includes humans!), or from certain species of fish. The birds could help us understand how biparental care has evolved in us humans.

“Caring for offspring is essential for their survival in many species, but it is also very costly in time and effort. Time spent bringing up your young means lost opportunities for re-mating and having more offspring, so parents face a trade-off between caring for current offspring and creating future offspring.

“This creates a conflict of interest between parents, since each parent would benefit by leaving their partner holding the baby whilst they go off and start a new brood elsewhere.

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“This is exactly what happens in most animal species, so we wanted to understand how and why animals like birds and primates have evolved the tendency to share their parental duties,” said Dr Freya Harrison at the University of Bath’s Biodiversity lab.

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