A same-sex male penguin couple at a zoo in New York state became parents after the egg they had been caring for hatched early last month.
The chick was hatched on January 1 after being fostered by Elmer and Lima. The dads became the first same-sex foster parents to successfully hatch an egg at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, which is known internationally for its Humboldt penguin program, the zoo said.
🐧🌈🐧 We have some very exciting news! The first chick to be fostered by a pair of same-sex penguins at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo hatched on January 1! Read the full news release here: https://t.co/NuVJMtLDde #Syracusezoo pic.twitter.com/nfbfiYL08p
— Rosamond Gifford Zoo (@SyracuseZoo) January 28, 2022
Elmer and Lima were both born at the zoo, in 2016 and 2019, respectively. They formed a “pair bond” last fall during the current breeding season.
They are both South American Humboldt penguins, a species that is classified as “vulnerable” because of climate change and habitat loss.
The zoo, which joined the Species Survival Plan for Humboldt penguins in 2005, says it has hatched more than 55 chicks since then. It has 28 Humboldt penguins in its current colony.
The zoo has used foster parents to help nurture eggs in the past because some breeding pairs have a history of accidentally breaking their fertilized eggs. That’s what happened to Elmer, who was given his name “because the egg he hatched from was accidentally damaged by his parents and the animal care team repaired it using Elmer’s glue.”
In order to save the chicks, zookeepers may surreptitiously swap in a fake egg and give the real one to another penguin couple to give it a better chance of hatching.
Not all penguin pairs are good at incubating eggs, according to zoo director Ted Fox: “It takes practice.”
The zoo said the fact that Elmer and Lima “built a nest and defended their territory” was a sign that they could be good parents.
“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 in a statement. “That’s how we evaluate who will be good foster parents — and Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care.”
The egg originally came from a female penguin named Poquita and her mate, Vente. After zookeepers detected a viable embryo inside the egg in December, they transferred it to Elmer and Lima, who were deemed to have a better chance of success.
Fox said the male penguins took turns incubating the egg until it hatched, and the pair have been warming and feeding the chick since.
“At our first health check when the chick was five days old, it weighed 226 grams (8 ounces),” Fox said. “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.”
Same-sex penguin couples like Elmer and Lima are not unheard of, and have proven good at fostering chicks before. In fact, more than 450 species of animals are known to form same-sex partnerships, according to the Oceanogràfic València aquarium.
In 2020, a pair of female penguins at an aquarium in Spain welcomed a baby chick. And in 2018, two male penguins at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Australia, Sphen and Magic — nicknamed “Sphengic”— hatched a chick and became internet stars in the process.
Fox said same-sex penguin pairs show that non-traditional families can do a wonderful job of rearing their young.
“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,” he said.