Shortly after Australia emerged from a big battle about the legality of gay marriage, two Gentoo penguins, unaware of the potential political controversy surrounding their relationship, became a national symbol as they successfully brought a baby penguin into the world together.
Not only did the unlikely pair hatch and raise a baby penguin together, they did so far better than any other penguin pair in their colony. Gentoo penguins Sphen and Magic are part of a relatively young colony living in Australia’s Sydney Aquarium.
Parenting hasn’t been the forte of most of the penguins in the young colony of 33. Most of them, despite having laid eggs, repeatedly found themselves too tempted by the desire to swim or play that their neglected eggs never hatched. While this behavior isn’t unusual for inexperienced penguins, one pair stood out from the crowd.
Not only were Sphen and Magic the only gay pair in the colony, they were the only pair exhibiting signs of being prepared for parenting. All signs pointed to the pair being diligent and careful parents. In fact, they had already build a nest together and were sitting on it constantly.
In response to this extraordinary behavior, aquarium staff gave the couple a dummy egg. Sphen and Magic took to it immediately, giving the staff all the proof they needed to know these two were ready for the real thing. And so, the next time a heterosexual couple appeared poised to neglecting yet another egg, it was transferred to the care of Sphen and Magic.
An Unlikely Pair
Sphen, at 6-years-old, is elder of the two and hails from SeaWorld. He’s a quiet and serious male, less interested in playing with toys and humans than his counterparts. Magic was born in captivity at the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. At a playful 3-years-old, he’s a regular aquarium star – excitable and playful and greets visitors as he plays.
The two make an unlikely pair, but aquarium staff and penguin keepers cannot say what makes one penguin choose one mate over another. Whatever it may be that brought Sphen and Magic together is the real deal.
On a summer day at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, the two met and, in typical Gentoo form, the two began to bow to each other. Their relationship progressed as they began to bring carefully selected pebbles to each other, perfect for nest building. This act is a form of consent. If one penguin were not interested in the other, they would simply reject the pebbles by pushing them away with a beak. Instead of rejected the pebbles, they admired them.
Before long, Sphen and Magic began to sing. The two sang to each other until they learned each other’s voices by heart. One penguin keeper, Laetitia Hannan, recalled:
“You would see Magic standing in his spot looking for Sphen, and he would call and Sphen would come running over and give Magic a little bow and sing as well. They’ve chosen each other. That’s it. They’re bonded now.”
While other penguins in the colony were flirting and avoiding the task of committing to a mate, Sphen and Magic’s minds were made up. “They weren’t interested in other birds in the colony.”
“We knew they would start picking up stones. And we knew they would build the best nest.”
The two were inseparable and could be seen waddling around and going for swims together.
When their egg finally arrived, Sphen and Magic each took turns sitting on it for a full 28 days.
According to the New York Times, “The first sign of a good Gentoo parent is that they’re able to recognize an egg has hatched and that the chick is slowly breaking its way out. This can take days. Sphen and Magic noticed straight away.”
Sphen and Magic began singing to their egg before it even hatched. And then, on October 19th, 2018 it was time.
The baby chick, currently referred to as Sphengic, weighed 91 grams when it hatched. Sphengic was the only chick to hatch in the colony.
Sphengic, the genderless penguin, stays close it’s parents, who sing to and feed it as needed. Sphen and Magic do everything right, despite having faced a few challenges many new parents face:
“Magic is the younger one, and he would try to pawn off the parental duties in the first couple days. Sometimes he would be like, ‘You feed the chick today’ and hop off and go swimming.”
It didn’t take long for Magic to fill his co-parenting role. While he would feed the chick, Sphen would sing to them.
“He was singing to encourage him. So Magic would know he was doing the right thing.”
Sphengic is now three months old and nearly fully grown. The chick’s gender remained unknown until mid-January when the Sydney Aquarium revealed the that Sphengic is a female. Penguin’s reproductive organs are not visible and no signs distinguish the difference between male and female. A blood test revealed what many were wondering.
While it is important penguin keepers to know the gender of each penguin for population management purposes, gender roles are undefined in the penguin world and parents share the responsibilities of maintaining nests and raising their young.
But in the end, much like humans, gender plays no role in a penguin’s ability to successfully raise a chick. According to Hannan:
“Penguins are born with the ability to raise chicks from start to finish whether they’re male or female, and that’s quite an interesting thought to keep in mind. We’re the same.”
If a penguin colony can successfully figure out the same-sex couple and parenting issue, certainly humans can, too.
Well many other penguins in the colony are searching for new mates for the upcoming mating season, Sphen and Magic remain together.
Image Credit | Images from Sea Life Sydney Aquarium’s Facebook Page