Two male penguins welcome hatchling as New York zoo's 1st same-sex foster parents
The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., has at times used foster parents to incubate penguin eggs — but those couples have always been made up of one male and one female.
Last year, after testing their fostering capabilities, zoo staff decided to entrust one of those eggs to two males: Elmer and Lima. The pair welcomed a healthy chick on Jan. 1, making them first-time dads and the zoo's first same-sex foster parents to successfully hatch an egg.
"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," said zoo director Ted Fox.
Elmer and Lima hatched at the zoo in 2016 and 2019, respectively, and formed a pair bond for the current breeding season, the zoo said in a release. They are both Humboldt penguins, which hail from South America and are classified as "vulnerable" because of climate change and habitat loss.
As part of the Species Survival Plan for Humboldt penguins, the zoo has its own sizeable penguin colony and has hatched more than 55 chicks over nearly two decades.
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.
Credit: Rosamond Gifford Zoo
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.
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).
Here's hoping Elmer and Lima can follow in their webbed footsteps.
This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.