In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolution of Parental Care

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Parental Care
  • Parental Care and Related Terms
  • History
  • Benefits and Costs of Care
  • Evolutionary Origin and Later Modification
  • Forms of Parental Care
  • Patterns of Parental Care

Evolutionary Biology Evolution of Parental Care
Per T. Smiseth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0014


Parental care involves traits expressed by parents that are directed toward their offspring and that enhance the offspring’s fitness (development or survival). These traits often incur a cost to the parents’ own survival and reproduction. Familiar examples include mammals, where females first nourish developing embryos via a placenta and then provision the young with milk after birth, and many birds, where females first nourish the developing embryos via egg yolk, and both parents later provision the nestlings with arthropods or some other food source. Less familiar examples occur among reptiles, amphibians, fishes, arthropods, mollusks, annelids, and other invertebrate groups. Some of these examples include elaborate forms of care comparable to those found in mammals and birds, while other examples include much simpler forms, as in most invertebrates, where care is restricted to nourishment of the embryo via egg yolk. Parental care is an extremely diverse trait, varying both within and between species with respect to the form it takes, its level and duration, and the extent to which it is provided by the male, the female, or both parents. The study of the evolutionary causes and consequences of this diversity is an important area of research in evolutionary biology. Important aims in this field are to understand how selection and genetic architecture generate and maintain diversity in parental care; how the diversity in parental care drives or is driven by selection on other traits of interest, such as life-histories, mating systems and sexual selection, and sociality; and how genetic conflicts of interest among family members shape the allocation of resources from parents to offspring.

General Overviews

Clutton-Brock 1991 is the obvious starting point for anyone interested in the evolution of parental care. This book provided the first comprehensive synthesis of studies on the evolution of parental care across different animal taxa, and it remains an important source of information on virtually all aspects of the evolution of parental care, including many of those that are dealt with in the following sections. A more concise overview of the evolution of parental care can be found in Clutton-Brock and Godfray 1991, a contribution published in the most influential volume in the field of behavioral ecology. Royle, et al. 2012 offers a general overview that includes contributions from multiple authors discussing the evolution of parental care from a variety of different perspectives. Allport 1997 is a popular science book that presents a readable overview of parental care aimed at the general public, undergraduates, and researchers.

  • Allport, S. 1997. A natural history of parenting: From emperor penguins to reluctant ewes, a naturalist looks at parenting in the animal world and ours. New York: Harmony.

    This popular science book presents a well-written and engaging overview of parental care and its evolution that is suitable for the general public, undergraduates, and researchers alike.

  • Clutton-Brock, T. H. 1991. The evolution of parental care. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This book provides the first comprehensive overview of diversity forms and patterns of parental care across animal taxa and the general principles underlying the evolution of parental care. Essential reading to everyone in the field.

  • Clutton-Brock, T. H., and H. C. J. Godfray. 1991. Parental investment. In Behavioural ecology: An evolutionary approach. 3d ed. Edited by J. R. Krebs and N. B. Davies, 234–262. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This contribution presents a concise overview of theoretical and empirical work on the evolution of parental care aimed at postgraduates in behavioral ecology.

  • Royle, N. J., P. T. Smiseth, and M. Kölliker, eds. 2012. The evolution of parental care. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume offers an overview and synthesis of the conceptual framework for understanding the evolution of parental care from different perspectives.

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