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Two Male Penguins in Berlin Join Long Line of Same-Sex Pairs to Adopt an Egg

Skipper and Ping have happily nurtured everything from rocks to fish before zookeepers let them incubate an egg

Ping incubates the egg as Skipper keeps guard. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

A penguin couple at a German zoo have been trying to have a baby for months—and now, they get their chance. The pair of male king penguins, Skipper and Ping, moved from Hamburg to Zoo Berlin together earlier this year. Shortly after their arrival, they started incubating everything from rocks to fish, presumably hoping for a chick.

A 22-year-old female penguin, called "The Orange" for her vivid orange coloring, recently laid an egg, but had never successfully raised a chick of her own. When she abandoned the egg, zookeepers decided to give it to Skipper and Ping, who have thoroughly demonstrated their interest and skill in incubation.

“It is very common that two penguins of the same sex come together. I don’t think it is the majority of penguins, but it is not rare either,” a Zoo Berlin spokesperson Maximilian Jäger, tells Liam Stack at the New York Times. “We are sure they would be good parents because they were so nice to their stone.”

Zookeepers describe Skipper, or Skip for short, and Ping as a chill, loving pair; Skip is the “tough” guy, and Ping is “more smooth,” Anja Seiferth, Zoo Berlin’s penguin keeper, tells Stack. Of course, now they take their parental duties very seriously, diligently protecting their egg and defending it when anything comes near. They’re a bit aggressive, but that’s expected from new parents, Seiferth explains.

Their story is beloved by the German public, attracting press and public popularity in recent weeks. Many visitors came to the zoo just to cheer on “the happy couple,” as zoo patron and Berlin-based gender studies researcher Anna Schmidt told the Times’ Stack.

“I knew homosexuality existed in the animal world but I had never heard of gay adoption in the animal world,” Schmidt said. “I am not sure why they decided to adopt, but I am sure they had their reasons.”

Homosexuality is common in the animal kingdom. Penguins, in particular, have become well-known for pairing up with the same sex—both in the wild in captivity. A small 2010 study of king penguins on the Antarctic island of Kerguelen found that 15 out of 53 couples studied were same-sex. The study didn’t find that these couples in the wild were too successful, only two had learned each other’s calls which is important for maintaining long term bonds, reports Smithsonian’s Brigit Katz.

In zoos, however, plenty of penguin couples have hatched eggs and cared for chicks. Zoos in the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark and Ireland have all hosted same-sex penguin pairings that maintained long-term relationships.

And of course, there’s the iconic story of Central Park Zoo’s Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who fathered a little baby girl named Tango in 2000. Tango grew up and a romance blossomed between her and another female penguin. She’s the star of the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, co-authored by psychiatrist Justin Richardson.

At the time, the pair faced hateful backlash from religious groups. The book itself was even banned in Hong Kong and Singapore. The positive support Skip and Ping have gotten so far seems to be a sign of the times and “where we are at any one location in terms of the acceptance of gay rights,” Richardson tells the Washington Post’s Rick Noack and Luisa Beck.

Hopefully, Skipper and Ping will be able to raise their own baby, but zookeepers aren’t certain that the egg was fertilized. The answer awaits in October when the incubation period ends. In the meantime, the two keep watch over their first egg—finally.

About Rachael Lallensack

Rachael Lallensack is the assistant web editor for science and innovation at Smithsonian.

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