Alloparenting-What Is It?

“Alloparenting—What Is It?”

Sonja G. Rosas

13 September 2007

An Introduction To Alloparenting

Every gregarious parent appreciates help rearing young now and then. Parents are not omnipotent and must take time away from their offspring to hunt and forage, engage in social encounters with other individuals, or otherwise perform activities that would be impossible to achieve with the presence of young. And many parents of every species does these things, either by leaving their offspring alone in the case of gregarious and ungregarious animals, or relying on another, more successful solution, almost exclusively in the case of gregarious animals.

The solution is alloparenting. The word alloparent comes from the Greek root ‘allo,’ meaning “other” and the Latin root word ‘parens,’ meaning, “parent”. So literally, alloparent means “other-parent”. More precisely, it means any conspecific (or in some cases interspecific) that acts as a parent to young that is not their own. Care given by these surrogates is called “allocare”.

Why Provide Allocare?

If you examine the act of alloparenting logically, it would seem largely maladaptive, and in many cases it is. Why would a reproductively viable creature every waste time raising young that isn’t theirs? It makes more sense biologically to be spending precious time and resources creating a legacy of their own. Yet animals of myriad species and genders continue to exhibit these superficially self-depriving behaviors.

It is important to emphasize now that alloparenting is not altruistic behavior. Every alloparent has “ulterior motives” for alloparenting—but they cannot always control these motives. Some are hardwired into the alloparent’s brain or stimulated by emotions that driven by self-interest. Others are more thought-out and voluntary. The main self-interested motives are: education and play, reciprocation, and genetic interest.

Young of conspecifics fascinates most pre-reproductive animals (especially females), most prevalently of which are those of mammals and birds. Oftentimes young and offspring-less sub-adults will spend time around mothers looking for any opportunity to hold, touch, groom, or otherwise have contact with their young. This behavior is play and education-oriented alloparenting and is an expression of budding maternal/paternal (in some species) instinct; the immature individual has a chance to “practice” with the young of others. This, like other play behaviors, is a preparatory, readying the individual for caring for their own young in the future

It is often beneficial for an individual to provide allocare (even to unrelated young) with the expectation of reciprocation. Reciprocation may manifest itself in an individual whose young was given allocare by another individual then returning the favor. Alternatively, reciprocation may be manifested in the creation of positive and advantageous social bonds within the social group. For example,

Genetic interest is possibly the best reason for an individual to provide allocare for related young. Many animals act as alloparents for their siblings, cousins, and other closely related young. It is genetically advantageous for an individual to do this even though they are not reproducing on their own. Siblings share roughly half of an individual’s genetic makeup, first cousins share roughly a quarter of an individual’s genetic makeup, and so on. To rear these bearers of at least a portion of your genes is wise, as the cared-for young are part of an individual’s genetic legacy, which they strive to make as large as possible.

Benefits Of Alloparenting For Recipients

Alloparenting is largely considered maladaptive because, although it does have some positive self-interested benefits for the exhibitor of the alloparental behavior, these benefits are often only gotten over the long-term or are weak substitutes for direct genetic propagation. The costs of acting as an alloparent often far outweigh the benefits for the alloparent. However, the benefits far outweigh any costs for the recipients of allocare, both the offspring and its parents.

Benefits For Parents

Parents whose young receive allocare reap many benefits of not having to be the constant and sole provider of care for their young. The presence of an alloparent allows the parent to travel further when hunting and foraging, to gather den or nest materials, to engage in social encounters with closely bonded individuals, and other such activities.

Many ungregarious and gregarious mothers alike are forced to leave their young for some periods of time. Doing so leaves the young unguarded from predators, competitors, and environmental dangers. With an alloparent taking over the care responsibilities, the chances of any accidents or casualties happening is drastically reduced.

Benefits For Young

Young who are provided allocare have a significant advantage over their non-alloparented counterparts. Aside from being guarded from danger, as explained in the last section, receiving allocare often has important social benefits for the recipient immature animal.

It is not uncommon for young to be alloparented by more than one caretaker, either at once or during different occasions, but even in the case of a singular alloparent, there are chances for social education. That the individual spends time around and being cared and reared by those other than their parents accustoms it to being exposed to a variety of individuals. It is advantageous for gregarious animals to begin testing the social norms of their society at an early age to learn what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.


Alloparenting is not, contrary to popular belief, a “noble” or altruistic behavior. It is instead a useful symbiosis of sorts that conspecifics use to their advantage. While this view may disappoint some people, it is unreasonable to be let down by this because of the benefits of alloparenting. Considering that the biological parents of the young receiving care, the recipient young, and the alloparents themselves can all gain considerable compensation for their behavior, there is no need to create a fictitious fantasy out of a successful survival strategy.

Article contributed by AyoTheLioness.
Accepted on September 20, 2007.

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