A pair of male Humboldt penguins have become parents to a hatchling at a New York zoo.
The penguin that hatched on New Year’s Day was a first for Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, although same-sex penguin couples have successfully incubated eggs elsewhere.
Zookeepers said the same-sex male pair, Elmer and Lima, were chosen to be foster parents for an egg laid by Poquita, a female penguin at the zoo who was given a dummy egg.
The pair were chosen to incubate an egg after they began building a nest together ahead of the current breeding season at the zoo, which is about 75 miles west of Rochester, New York, this past fall.
Rosamond Gifford Zoo director Ted Fox said not all penguin couples are good at incubating eggs, but “Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care”.
The two penguins took turns incubating the egg until the Humboldt penguin chick hatched, said Mr Fox, and “it continues to be brooded and cared for by both Elmer and Lima, who are doing a great job”.
“And once they have experience doing this and continue to do it well, they will be considered to foster future eggs,” the director added in an announcement.
It explained that several breeding pairs have a history of accidentally breaking their fertilized eggs (that’s what happened to Elmer, who is named after the glue used to repair the damaged egg from which he later emerged). To try to increase the eggs’ odds, zoo staff have at times replaced one couple’s egg with a “dummy egg” and transferred the original to another couple to incubate.
That’s where Elmer and Lima come in. The two paired up in the fall of 2021, building a nest and defending their territory. The penguin team then decided to test their fostering skills — which not all penguins have.
“Some pairs, when given a dummy egg, will sit on the nest but leave the egg to the side and not incubate it correctly, or they’ll fight for who is going to sit on it when,” Fox said. “That’s how we evaluate who will be good foster parents — and Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care.”
The team determined on Dec. 23 that an egg laid by another couple — female Poquita and her mate Vente — had a viable embryo inside, and gave it to Elmer and Lima for incubation.
It hatched on Jan. 1 and weighed 8 ounces at its first health check five days later. A spokesperson for the zoo told NPR that the chick is a boy and has yet to be named.
Fox said the male penguins took turns incubating the egg before it hatched, and have been warming and feeding the chick since.
“It continues to be brooded and cared for by both Elmer and Lima, who are doing a great job,” he added. “And once they have experience doing this and continue to do it well, they will be considered to foster future eggs.”
The zoo is celebrating Elmer and Lima as its first successful same-sex foster parents. But while their journey is relatively rare, it’s certainly not the first of its kind in the U.S. or even the world.
Other same-sex penguin pairs who have fostered chicks at zoos in recent years include Electra and Viola, female Gentoo penguins in Spain; Skipper and Ping, male king penguins in Berlin; and Eduardo and Rio, male Magellanic penguins in San Francisco.
In recent years, penguins have been incubated by same-sex foster parents at zoos in Valencia, Spain; Berlin, Germany and in San Francisco, California.
Mr Fox said “Elmer and Lima’s success at fostering is one more story that our zoo can share to help people of all ages and backgrounds relate to animals,” and that for many animals “family” is not specific or “traditional”.
Humboldt penguins are listed as vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and are native to the Pacific coast of South America.
Some older high-profile, same-sex penguin relationships have ended in heartbreak, as NPR has reported. Others are still going strong.
They include Sphen and Magic, who fostered two chicks together and recently celebrated their third anniversary to much fanfare.
The SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium describes them as a “same sex penguin power couple” who became a symbol of Australia’s gay rights movement when they got together in 2018. (They’ve outlasted such celebrity relationships as Elon Musk/Grimes and Camila Cabello/Shawn Mendes, the aquarium notes).
Rosamond has seen 55 Humboldt penguin chicks hatched since the animals were introduced to the zoo in 2005.
Here’s hoping Elmer and Lima can follow in their webbed footsteps.