Nurturing, loving families come in all shapes and sizes, even for penguins! Meet the latest same-sex penguins to foster a chick.
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chick that is fostered by same-sex penguins
Credit: Courtesy of Rosamond Gifford Zoo

This New Year's Day, Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., announced the successful hatching of the organization's first Humboldt penguin chick raised by a male pair of same-sex penguins, Lima and Elmer.

It's certainly a celebratory occasion, but why were these foster dads needed? Some of the zoo's penguins have a track record of inadvertently damaging their eggs, leading keepers to occasionally switch out accident-prone penguins' fertilized eggs for dummy eggs and give their healthy eggs to foster parents.

This breeding season Elmer and Lima, hatched at the zoo in 2016 and 2019, were given a viable egg laid by female penguin Poquita and her male mate Vente on Dec. 23rd. The zoo said in a news release that Elmer and Lima, who united during the fall of 2021, showed all the signs they'd make an excellent foster family, building a suitable nest and defending their territory.

"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," Zoo Director Ted Fox said in the news release. "That's how we evaluate who will be good foster parents—and Elmer and Lima were exemplary in every aspect of egg care."

Fox said the male chick weighed a healthy 8 ounces at 5 days old. He added that the chick continues to be brooded, or warmed, and cared for by both Elmer and Lima, who are doing a great job. "Once they have experience doing this and continue to do it well, they will be considered to foster future eggs," he said.

Elmer and Lima's success story is good news for the species, which is native to the Humboldt current off the coast of Peru and Chile and listed as vulnerable with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of climate change and habitat loss. There are an estimated 23,800 Humboldt penguins left in the wild.

Elmer and Lima's story also further demonstrates that non-traditional families can excel at child-rearing and expands the potential number of penguin pairs that can raise healthy offspring to help ensure the species' survival.

Elmer and Lima are definitely champions for same-sex parents, but they are by no means the first same-sex penguins to raise a baby. In 2020 female gentoo penguins Electra and Violet raised a chick in a Spanish aquarium. Two male chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo, also got some media attention when they got together at New York City's Central Park Zoo in 1998.

And penguins are not the only species that naturally establish same-sex pairs. Some 450 animal species commonly form same-sex partnerships, both in the wild and zoos.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that Lima and Elmer manage to stick it out, both for their sake and that of their dwindling species. Based on at least Elmer's history, he has sticking power. He got his name after his parents cracked his egg and zoo staff glued it back together using, you guessed it, Elmer's glue!