A few months ago, staff at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Australia noticed a new romance blossoming between two male Gentoo penguins. Sphen and Magic, or “Sphengic” as the amorous birds have been dubbed, were seen going for swims together and bowing to one another—a sign that they were both interested in being more than just friends. As Brandon Specktor reports for Live Science, the same-sex penguin partners have now taken their relationship to the next level and are incubating a foster egg.
Prior to the 2018 breeding season, Sphen and Magic started collecting pebbles to create a nest, and “now have more pebbles than any other couple!” Sea Life exclaims in a statement. To make sure the birds didn’t feel left out when the other penguin couples started breeding, staff gave Sphen and Magic a dummy egg to satisfy their broody instincts. But Sphengic proved to be so good at taking care of the dummy that the aquarium’s penguin team decided to give them a real egg from another couple that had two.
In the wild, Gentoo penguins that lay two eggs often only have enough resources to care for one of them, so the “back up chick” typically does not survive, Tish Hannan, Sea Life’s penguin department supervisor, tells Jamie McKinnell of Australia’s ABC News. The biological parents of the foster egg did not even notice it was gone, she added.
Sphen and Magic, on the other hand, seem quite thrilled about their baby-to-be. There have frequently been days when the incubating parents have kept the egg hidden from sight, “which is really good for penguin breeding!” Sea Life notes.
Gentoo couples often form long-lasting bonds, and when an egg arrives on the scene, the parents take turns incubating it. They also share the responsibility of rearing chicks, alternating between looking for food and keeping watch over their babies. Because both female and male Gentoos have brooding and foraging instincts, same-sex couples are perfectly capable of hatching and caring for fluffy little ones.
Still, long-term homosexual penguin pairings don’t seem to happen very often in the wild. A 2010 study found that 15 out of 53 king penguin couples on the Antarctic island of Kerguelen were same sex, but just two of those couples went as far as learning one another’s calls—a crucial step in forming lasting bonds.
In captivity, however, a number of same-sex penguin relationships have progressed to the stage of rearing chicks. Perhaps the most famous of the lovers were Roy and Silo, male chinstrap penguins who nested together for six years at the Central Park Zoo. They raised a female chick named Tango, who went on to form her own same-sex pairing. You can read all about it in the children’s book And Tango Makes Three.
Sadly, Roy and Silo’s relationship fell apart when two aggressive penguins booted them from their nest, and Silo took off with a female from California named Scrappy. “Of late, Roy has been seen alone, in a corner, staring at a wall,” Jonathan Miller of the New York Times reported in 2005.
A similar tale can be seen in Harry and Pepper, two male Magellanic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo who nested for six years and fostered a chick together. In 2009, however, Harry’s eye started to wander, and he paired off with a female named Linda.
In 2014, same-sex penguin couple Jumbs and Kent stepped in to raise a chick that had been abandoned by its mother at a zoo in the U.K. Wingham Wildlife Park. The park owner proclaimed at the time that they were “two of the best penguin parents we have had yet."
The future of Sphen and Magic’s romance may be somewhat uncertain—will they too develop wandering eyes?—but they certainly seem to have what it takes to be good parents. Sea Life penguin director Hannan tells McKinnell of ABC News that “all the signs we're seeing at the moment [indicate] they're going to be amazing."