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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hamsters Put Other Mammalian Dads to Shame

Most mammals are lousy fathers.

Those that don't eat their young do little to help in the birth apart from making encouraging noises. Djungarian hamsters, though, are paws-on dads.

In the first published case of its kind, Canadian scientists have watched Djungarian fathers help pull their babies from the birth canal, lick off the birth membranes, open the baby's airways and share a snack of afterbirth with the mother.

There have been similar behavior observations in other species, but Katherine Wynne-Edwards and her colleagues at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, are the first to explore why it happens.

"Djungarian fathers have hormonal fluctuations similar to the mother's around the time of birth," she said.

Oestrogen and cortisol levels rise before the birth, then fall away afterward as testosterone rises. This doesn't happen in the closely related Siberian hamster.

Although fathers in both species care for their young, Siberian hamsters appear on the scene well after the birth. Djungarians are also from Siberia, but live in a harsher desert environment. Djungarian fathers remain in the burrow at the time of birth and help keep mother and young warm enough to survive.

"We hypothesized that because of the early hormonal changes, Djungarians would show the full range of paternal behavior," Wynne-Edwards said.

They did. Not only were they exemplary midwives, she said, "we saw the mother and father both holding the afterbirth with four little paws, sharing it 50/50. There are probably lots of species that do this."

But few researchers have tried to find out as it is difficult to measure hormones without stressing animals.