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Same-Sex Penguin Couple Fosters An Egg In Sydney

Gentoo penguins relax in the cool temperatures at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in 2016. Sphen and Magic, the newest penguin couple in the aquarium, are fostering an egg together.
James D. Morgan/Getty Images
Gentoo penguins relax in the cool temperatures at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in 2016. Sphen and Magic, the newest penguin couple in the aquarium, are fostering an egg together.

In the penguin habitat at an aquarium in Sydney, love is in the air.

The newest penguin couple here are named Sphen and Magic, and the two males are about to take the leap into parenthood.

Sea Life Sydney Aquarium said they became inseparable before breeding season, "constantly seen waddling around and going for swims together."

There's a reason gentoo penguins have been called "one of the more romantic seabirds in the animal kingdom," as Oceana explains, and it comes down to their nesting habits.

The species constructs nests out of pebbles, and according to Oceana, "individual pebbles may be shared between potential mates beforehand as a sign that they are interested in becoming a breeding pair."

The couple, which have become known as Sphengic, have now gathered more pebbles than any other penguin pair at the aquarium.

The aquarium says their caretakers initially gave them a "dummy egg to allow them to practice incubating and develop their skills."

It says it quickly became clear they were "absolute naturals," which prompted the caretakers to give them a real egg from another pair of penguins that had two in their nest.

"They immediately knew exactly what it was and started incubating it, and we're really, really happy," Tish Hannan, the aquarium's penguin department supervisor, told Australia's ABC broadcaster. She adds that the original parents didn't appear to notice their second egg was missing, and it's common for gentoo penguins to only be able to successfully raise one egg.

Gentoo penguin parents typically are quite egalitarian in the way they share parenting responsibilities, Hannan tells ABC.

"We're not going to need to step in just because they're males," she said. "We might step in if it turns out that they're not good parents because of who they are as individuals, but for all the signs we're seeing at the moment they're going to be amazing."

The aquarium describes Sphen, who is older, as "excellent at incubating," while his younger mate is apparently still "mastering the skill." However, it notes approvingly that there are "often days where the egg cannot be seen" — apparently a great sign.

It's worth noting that there have been several other famous same-sex penguin couples. Silo and Roy, two male chinstrap penguins, had a happy relationship for six years at the Central Park Zoo in New York. Harry and Pepper, two male Magellanic penguins, also lived together as a couple for six years at the San Francisco Zoo.

According to news reports, both of those romances ended in heartbreak. In each case, one of the male penguins eventually got together with a female penguin. These breakups also caused a great deal of heartache for their local fans. The New York Times description of abandoned Roy is particularly sad: "Of late, Roy has been seen alone, in a corner, staring at a wall."

The Sydney aquarium staff is optimistic about their pair's future prospects.

"If they have a successful breeding season and raise a chick," Hannan tells ABC, "next year they're very likely to get back together again because they know that worked for them."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.