It is generally believed that level of paternity (the proportion of zygotes in a brood that were fertilized by the male providing parental care) has an important role in the evolution of parental care. We have used population genetics models to investigate this role. The models indicate that only in mating systems where a parental male "sacrifices" promiscuous matings can paternity influence the evolution of male parental care. This is because level of paternity can reflect the number of opportunities for these promiscuous fertilizations. For example, high paternity can mean few opportunities and therefore a low cost for paternal care.
Certain behaviors may preadapt a species for the evolution of male parental care because they decrease the costs of providing care. For example, in fish species where male care has evolved from spawning territories, the very establishment of territories may have precluded males from gaining promiscuous matings, thereby eliminating the promiscuity costs and facilitating the evolution of care. Without a promiscuity cost, level of paternity will not have influenced the evolution of male care in fishes.
Because paternity has limited influence in the evolution of male care, differences in reliability of parentage between males and females are unlikely to explain the prevalence of female care. Our analysis suggests that paternity differences between species cannot serve as a general explanation for the observed patterns of parental care behavior.