Egg-pilfering penguin couple strike again

Isabel Lamb discusses the prevalence of same-sex penguin couples worldwide

Isabel Lamb
9th November 2020

The crime rate in Amersfoort Zoo in the Netherlands must be highest in the penguin enclosure and it’s all down to two rather unruly, possibly surprising individuals – a male homosexual penguin couple.

Back in 2019 the African penguin couple poached the egg of a heterosexual couple and attempted to hatch it as their own. Despite their best efforts the egg failed to produce a chick, but these hopeful fathers didn’t give up and have recently pinched a second egg from another homosexual couple – this time two females.

Keepers at the zoo say the male couple are currently incubating their newly acquired egg, taking it in turns to keep the egg toasty warm and searching for food. However their effort may be somewhat fruitless, and the penguins are probably to spend another year childless as the looted egg, being laid by a lesbian couple, is unlikely to be fertilised.

Credit: Robert Keane on Unsplash.

King penguins from Kerguelen Island in the Antarctic often can be seen in same-sex mating displays and pairings.

Homosexual penguins are not unique to Amersfoort zoo. Keepers at the Berlin zoo gave King penguin couple, Skipper and Ping, an abandoned egg after they showed signs of wanting to father a rock together. And Gentoo penguins, Electra and Viola, from the Valencia aquarium in Spain recently became mothers after successfully adopting and hatching an egg. Homosexuality has also been frequently observed in nature. King penguins from Kerguelen Island in the Antarctic often can be seen in same-sex mating displays and pairings.

Previously, it was believed by some zoologists that penguins engage in homosexual behaviour due to a lack of sexual dimorphism, that is males and females are visual very similar, meaning penguins are simply unable to differentiate between genders when mating.

Credit: Pam Ivey on Unsplash.

Both these explanations of occurrences of homosexuality in penguins are mechanistic, they only tackle the physical processes and factors underlying the behaviour and ignore possible mentalistic explanations such as underlying sexual preferences and desires that could exist within the penguins.

In 2010, after observing the Kerguelen Island penguins, a team from the French National Centre for Scientific Research ruled out this idea saying that the number of homosexual couples was much lower than would be expected if they were simply making errors in judging one another’s gender and randomly mating. They concluded that due to a lack of females within the penguin colony some males simply never get the chance to mate with a female but are still driven to form a pairing by high hormonal levels. Both these explanations of occurrences of homosexuality in penguins are mechanistic, they only tackle the physical processes and factors underlying the behaviour and ignore possible mentalistic explanations such as underlying sexual preferences and desires that could exist within the penguins.

Many years later and the jury is still out on why penguins engage in homosexual behaviour but there’s no denying that both in the wild and in captivity it is a frequent occurrence, and those who do form same-sex couples still have the same strong desire to reproduce as a heterosexual couple. And, as demonstrated by Amersfoort’s repeat offenders, may even use some rather underhand tactics to achieve this desire.

Featured image: Pax Arando on Unsplash.

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