A Brief History of Same-Sex Penguin Parents

Before Sphen and Magic, there was Roy and Silo, Harry and Pepper, Jumbs and Kermit, and the kidnappers of Odense Zoo.
October 16, 2018, 12:00pm
​Image: Sea Life Sydney Aquarium
Image: Sea Life Sydney Aquarium/YouTube screengrab

Don’t let Prince Harry and Meghan Markle steal the spotlight from the biggest baby announcement this week—Sphen and Magic, a pair of male Gentoo penguins at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Australia, are expecting a chick together.

The two penguins “developed a strong bond” and became “inseparable this breeding season,” according to a recent Instagram post. After the pair built a nest out of pebbles, a sign of anticipation about raising chicks together, the aquarium staff tested out their parenting skills with a dummy egg.

Impressed by the couple’s dedication to the task, Sea Life announced on Friday that Sphen and Magic have been given a real egg to nurture. The egg came from a neighboring female penguin that laid two eggs. There’s no word on the due date, but Gentoo penguins typically incubate their young for about 30 days, so the chick should hatch within one month.

Wild penguins have been observed engaging in homosexual courtship and copulation for many decades. The explorer George Murray Levick was so scandalized by this behavior when he observed it in 1915 that his observations were not published for almost a century. That said, same-sex penguin couples don’t typically raise chicks together in the wild.


Two-dad penguin families are becoming more common in captivity, however, as zookeepers have seen positive outcomes for chicks raised by surrogates like Sphen and Magic. In cases where a chick’s biological parents face inadequate support, or if a pair laid more eggs than it could manage, zoo staff have transferred chicks to foster pairs.

For instance, Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins, were nesting partners at Central Park Zoo from 1998 to 2004. The pair raised a female chick called Tango, who also formed a same-sex nesting relationship once she matured to adulthood. The family is the subject of the children’s books And Tango Makes Three and Two Daddies for Tango.

In 2003, two male Magellanic penguins named Harry and Pepper formed a bond at the San Francisco Zoo. They nested for six years and foster-fathered a chick named Norris, but in 2009 Harry left Pepper to live with a female, Linda.

At Wingham Wildlife Park in Kent, UK, two male Humboldt penguins named Jumbs and Kermit successfully incubated an egg together in 2014. The egg was transferred to the couple after the chick’s biological father failed to support its mother.

"These two [Jumbs and Kermit] have so far proven to be two of the best penguin parents we have had yet," park owner Tony Binskin told the BBC at the time.

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And just last month, two male Emperor penguins at Odense Zoo in Denmark straight-up kidnapped a chick from its parents while they went out for a swim. The confrontation between the couples when staff intervened to return the chick was caught on tape.

Now, Sydney-based lovebirds Sphen and Magic have become the latest power couple in a storied tradition of two-father penguin families in zoos.

"We might step in if it turns out that they're not good parents because of who they are as individuals, but for all the signs we're seeing at the moment they're going to be amazing,” Tish Hannan, Sea Life’s penguin department supervisor told ABC Australia. "If they have a successful breeding season and raise a chick, next year they're very likely to get back together again because they know that worked for them."

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