Congratulations are in order for two male Humboldt penguins at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York. After adopting an egg last year, Elmer and Lima—the same-sex foster couple—successfully incubated an egg and became parents to the new hatchling on January 1, 2022.
Elmer and Lima formed a “pair bond” for the current breeding season and are the first same-sex foster couple at the zoo. The fostering of eggs isn’t new, however, as the zoo has at least two pairs of penguins who have historically broken their fertilized eggs on accident. To give these eggs better odds at hatching, zookeepers swap in a dummy egg for the real one and give it to a pair to test their chance at incubation.
After Elmer and Lima paired up, they built a nest and defended their territory. This behavior made the zoo team decide to test their fostering abilities. It’s not easy. “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,” explained Ted Fox, Zoo Director at Rosamond Gifford. “That’s how we evaluate who will be good foster parents—and Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care.”
The two penguins took turns incubating the egg until it hatched. Since then, they have been brooding (warming) and feeding the chick. “At our first health check when the chick was five days old, it weighed 226 grams (8 ounces),” Fox said. “It continues to be brooded and cared for by both Elmer and Lima, who are doing a great job. And once they have experience doing this and continue to do it well, they will be considered to foster future eggs.”
Although Elmer and Lima are the first same-sex foster couple at the Syracuse zoo, their story isn’t unique to other institutions around the world. Zoos in Berlin and San Francisco also have male pairs of penguins.
Beyond incubating and hatching a chick, Rosamond Gifford Zoo sees the same-sex penguin couple as an example that the idea of “family” can mean many things and that non-traditional families also do an exceptional job of supporting a child and giving their full love and attention. “Elmer and Lima’s success at fostering,” Fox shared, “is one more story that our zoo can share to help people of all ages and backgrounds relate to animals.”