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Fathering Campbells

Author: Pamela Milward

From Issue 34 Jul 2000

Some very interesting research has been published recently on "Hormones and Behaviour" in the New Scientist (22nd April) by Katherine Wynne-Edwards and her colleagues at Queen's University, Ontario, Canada regarding male russian campbells. They have discovered that the males have hormonal fluctuations similar to those of the mother around the time of birth. Oestrogen and cortisol levels rise before the birth and decrease afterwards when testosterone levels rise. It has long been known that russian fathers (both campbell and winter white) help care for the young and Dr Fred Petry in his book on dwarf hamsters [editor's note: looks like Fred Petry's book is out of print now, but if you know better, please contact us] reports that the survival rate of the young is 95% after five days when the father is present but only 47% when only the mother is caring from them. The Canadian scientists have actually observed campbell fathers helping at the birth by pulling the young from the birth canal, licking them to clear the membranes and open the airways and finally sharing the afterbirth with the mother. It is only the campbells that do this - the winter white males appear on the scene well after the actual birth.

As the campbells live in a harsh environment, the father's presence at the birth is essential to keep the mother and young warm enough to survive and to ensure that the babies are not alone when one parent is out foraging for food.

Catherine Wynne-Edwards did research some years ago on both species of russians and their lives and burrows in their native land which I wrote about in the BHA journal (26, July 1998).

I had a case some years back when a mother russian died a short while after a litter was born and the father brought them up, caring for them devotedly, bringing food and water before they were able to leave the nest, washing them and keeping them warm - although I had to assist by giving them milk from a dropper at first.