Hey, who’s watching the kids?

Normal thought about cichlid fry is that they are cared for by the mother, sometimes the father, or both parents. And such thought would be accurate, but that’s not necessarily the complete story. Did you know an aunt, a cousin, or a next door neighbor might also be involved? Such “parenting” is called alloparental care, or more specifically “any form of parental care, which is directed towards non-descendent young.” The phenomena is not unique to cichlids, or even fish, and may not be easily observed. Nor is it restricted to conspecifics. So why does it occur? In his article titled “Allparental care in fishes” from Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, Brian Wisenden provides six scenarios (as summarized below by Hyuk Je Lee, Valentin Helm, and Axel Meyer in this article from Ecology and Evolution):

(1) brood farming out (Yanagisawa 1985) where parents ‘deliberately’ transfer their offspring to be cared for by other parents;
(2) kidnapping (McKaye and McKaye 1977) where foster parents kidnap free‐swimming young of other parents;
(3) independent offspring inclusion (Taborsky 1994) where deserted or stray juveniles join neighboring broods;
(4) brood amalgamation (Eadie et al. 1988) where adjacent broods merge for cooperative care by more than one set of biological parents;
(5) philopatric offspring (Taborsky and Limberger 1981) where offspring from previous breeding events stay at their natal territory and help their parents to nurse subsequent broods and
(6) extension of alloparental care of eggs (Taborsky 1994). Still, the ultimate evolutionary origins and explanations as to the adaptive or nonadaptive, or maladaptive, natures as well as proximate mechanisms of alloparental care appear to vary at inter and, sometimes, even intraspecific levels (Sefc et al. 2009; Coleman and Jones 2011).

So if you ever notice something weird happening in your tank involving the non-parent cichlids of your fry (besides predation), you could be witnessing some form of alloparental care.

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