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Male penguin pair, New York zoo’s first same-sex foster parents, doing ‘great job’ raising baby chick

This Humboldt penguin chick recently hatched from an egg being cared for by two male penguins at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y. (Rosamond Gifford Zoo)

Two male Humboldt penguins who adopted an egg during breeding season are the proud new foster parents of a fuzzy-haired chick — and the New York zoo where it hatched says its first-ever same-sex couple to take on this role is doing a “great job.”

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse has for years worked to boost the dwindling population of Humboldt penguins in the wild. This species, which can be found off the coast of Chile and Peru in South America, is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“We have some very exciting news!” the zoo wrote on Twitter, as it shared images of the fluffy brown chick, which weighed in at 226 grams (8 ounces) during its first health check earlier this month. The chick hatched on Jan. 1.

Elmer and Lima, two male penguins from the zoo’s colony of 28 birds, were given the egg to incubate and look after by officials who were concerned that breeding pairs at the zoo had “a history of inadvertently breaking their fertilized eggs,” according to a statement released Friday.

The zoo said staff gave the egg to the male penguins in a bid to boost the chances of the egg eventually hatching. The two were “exemplary in every aspect of egg care,” the zoo said, adding that the males took turns protecting the egg before it hatched.

Ted Fox, the zoo’s director, said not all penguin pairs are good at incubating eggs, noting that it “takes practice.”

The males have been tending to the chick by feeding it and keeping it warm — actions that the zoo said highlight that “non-traditional families do a wonderful job of child-rearing.”

“Elmer and Lima’s success is one more story that our zoo can share to help people of all ages and backgrounds relate to animals,” Fox said.

And while Elmer and Lima’s same-sex fostering journey is a first for the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, other institutions around the world have also reported positive results with same-sex pairs fostering eggs.

Penguin couples usually take turns protecting and nurturing an egg, nestling it between their feet and shielding it from cold temperatures and dangers with a fold of skin described by experts as a “fleecy fold of belly plumage.”

At an aquarium in Spain, two female gentoo penguins became first-time moms in 2020 and spent time raising a baby chick they had adopted as an egg.

Skipper and Ping, a pair of male king penguins at the Berlin Zoo, adopted an abandoned egg in 2019. A zoo spokesman told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper at the time that the couple were “behaving like model parents, taking turns to keep the egg warm.”

In 2005, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo joined the Species Survival Plan — a program used by zoos and aquariums to protect endangered or threatened animals in the wild — for Humboldt penguins.

Experts say the Humboldt penguin population’s continued decline could be linked to ocean currents and temperatures in the Pacific changing amid the climate crisis, along with the mining of their habitats in Chile. Humboldt penguins feed primarily on fish but adults hunting for prey in the wild are being forced to travel further for food because of high commercial fishing demands and oil pollution. Researchers say the population’s habitats have been devastated by guano mining for fertilizer.

Humboldt penguins generally live for around 20 years.

The Syracuse zoo says it has hatched more than 55 Humboldt chicks so far, and that more chicks could soon be born.

Staff there have not ruled out giving Elmer and Lima more parenting responsibilities, saying that the pair would most definitely be top candidates “to foster future eggs.”

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