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Should Gay, Endangered Penguins Be Forced to Mate?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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African penguinsWhat do you do when a species is rapidly disappearing in the wild and two of its most likely in-captivity studs decide to cuddle with each other instead of with eligible bachelorettes?

That’s the problem Toronto Zoo is encountering this week as two endangered male African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) recently brought to the zoo for breeding purposes seem more concerned with spending time with one another than with two eager females.

Penguin homosexuality is not unknown in nature or in zoos, and although it’s not yet known if Pedro (age 10) and Buddy (age 20) are actually homosexual, Toronto Zoo is already planning on separating them to more forcefully pair them with mates who already have a case of puppy love for the newcomers. It’s kind of sad, actually. “The two girls have been following them; we just have to get the boys interested in looking at them,” Tom Mason, the zoo’s curator of birds and invertebrates, told the National Post.

African penguins (also known as black-footed penguins) only live on South Africa’s southern coast. Their population in the wild has dropped nearly 75 percent in the past two decades, from as estimated 225,000 in the 1990s to around 60,000 today, most likely due to changes in food availability brought on by climate change. The population drop is even more dramatic when you look at a broader time period. According to a 1999 IUCN report (pdf), just one of their breeding colonies was home to 1.4 million birds back in 1910. Other threats the penguins have faced include egg harvesting (a practice that is now prohibited) and numerous oil spills in their habitats.

With the penguins’ wild population at risk, zoos are actively taking up the breeding mantle. According to the National Post, “the sexual partners of almost all captive African penguins are carefully mapped out by researchers at Chicago’s Population Management Center. There, penguins are paired, split up and even moved to different zoos purely on the basis of maximizing genetic diversity.”

Part of the problem is that unlike some other endangered species, extracting penguin sperm and artificially inseminating a female is not as easy as it sounds. A study conducted on rockhopper penguins and published in May in Zoo Biology extracted semen from 14 males but resulted in only three fertilized eggs and two surviving chicks.

Separating the two male penguins might be enough to get them breeding. A study released in 2010 by the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology and published in Ethnology found that supposedly gay penguins weren’t solely attracted to the same gender, but were instead just “lonely.”

Photo: African penguins at Bristol Zoo in the U.K., by Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dmalleske 4:35 pm 11/10/2011

    What we choose for the penguins should apply to humans.

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  2. 2. 111211 6:49 pm 11/10/2011

    @dmalleske yes, because the situation is so very analogous to ours…all our males are bromancing the hell out of each other, leaving the poor females frustrated and baby-less, driving us closer and closer to extinction.

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  3. 3. Wulfher 11:45 pm 11/10/2011

    Force away, these birds were bought for the purpose or procreation. Birds aren’t protected under the constitution. What a stupid world.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 8:41 am 11/11/2011

    “Wulfher”, “Force away, these birds were bought for the purpose or procreation. Birds aren’t protected under the constitution. What a stupid world.”

    What a stupid person! Penguins mate for life just like the American Eagles. Africa no doubt killed these two’s life mates and now you want to force them to mate with someone they have not chosen. If we forced humans to have sex with someone they didn’t want to have sex with; we’d call that sexual abuse and promoting prostitution. Put those two penguins back in with their flock where they will have more than one choice and when they find another life mate, they will breed at their own will. What stupid humans!

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  5. 5. MartyMcGyver 5:00 pm 11/11/2011

    JamesDavis: Not all penguins mate for life. These two are 10 years apart in age; speculating about the fate of their mates, if indeed they ever had any, is just that, speculation.

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  6. 6. giddyup 10:10 pm 11/12/2011

    Maybe the two girl penguins are fat, lazy slobs. I bet neither of them even tried to initiate a conversation with one of the boy penguins. They probably don’t even have jobs. It’s so easy to tell from the picture that they’re just looking for a sugar daddy. They’re the types that order ‘berry blush’ martinis, *always* have to go to the bathroom together. They clearly have a lot of passion for singing “Don’t Stop Believing” (badly and loudly) when it comes on the jukebox.

    Lady penguins, you need to step it up! Lose some weight. Be real and be cool. Stop being a fake excuse for a woman. Get a job, develop a hobby and stop watching reality television. More than anything else, shut your mouth and *listen* to him — it’s the easiest way to trick him into thinking that you believe he is special. Start NOW or you’ll become those scary cat lady penguins that the children are afraid to approach on Halloween.

    Is this too hard for you to understand? It’s not like I’m asking you to extract penguin sperm and artificially inseminate yourselves. I tried that once, and believe me … it’s not as easy as it sounds.

    p.s. I dream of a world where penguins cross breed with crocodiles and keep humans as pets.

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  7. 7. Flatfish 12:10 am 11/13/2011

    giddyup–personally, I would marry any female penguin who could sing “Don’t Stop Believing,” however badly. When people asked how we met, I would say “Through the Scientific American blog. It’s kind of a cute story, really… ” and then she would sing, and we’d all go out for fish.

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  8. 8. giddyup 3:45 pm 11/13/2011

    and then we’d say “thanks for all the fish”

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  9. 9. daedalus2u 6:39 pm 11/14/2011

    Penguins are not human beings. Projecting human-type attributes on them is wrong and bad science and bad ethics.

    No one is going to “force” these penguins to mate. Artificial insemination in penguins is really hard to do. Either they do it voluntarily or it isn’t going to happen.

    These penguins are already in captivity, and their habitat and food supply in the wild is being destroyed by humans.

    It would be a shame to not facilitate penguin reproduction because of the human feelings that some people have.

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  10. 10. PeterWZ 7:45 pm 11/14/2011

    I am one of the people whom Scientific American regularly disrespects in its editorials, i.e., a man of religion and traditional values. My extinction is sought so much by the magazine that I am surprised I get renewal notices annually. Funny, huh? I guess that believers in God are ok as long as they pay their bills as I do. For now. In any case… The two creatures are necessary for the furtherance of their kind. Seemingly (obviously?) that is possible only by contact with similar creatures of the opposite sex. Human beings may decide otherwise, but these penguins need heterosexual relations, such as they are in their world. “Mother Nature” (certainly not God, right?) is very funny that way. I wish all those with same sex attraction the best. May all find fulfillment as they see fit. I do not see it as any more viable an option for the human race’s continuance as it is not in the matter of these penguins who apparently need to produce new little penguins. Science as praised by Scientific American has settled that other possibility for humans with in vitro procedures, but not for “birds” nor for “bees”. That is my opinion and it is not the only one. I know that. I stand in no one’s way on the road to happiness – either human or penguin. I say without any desire of giving offense, may God bless all, human and penguin alike, and may all be satisfied in whatever relationships they may find appropriate and may offspring be brought into a “loving family”. I believe in the “old-time” family as I had/have. That, I think, is the best. Not all agree. God (I’m sorry I mention Him again) bless America! All I suggest is that we really try to understand the consequences of our deeds and may true scientific consideration of such issues be undertaken without prejudice for “old-fashioned” values which have lasted for thousands of years and have served us well while acknowledging that some non-values and hurts also have been around as well for far too many years. Science is about experimentation, documentation and dialogue, and not diatribe. What a concept!

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  11. 11. Jerzy New 6:05 am 11/15/2011

    I think penguins and ostriches should be paid disability benefit on account of being unable to fly.

    Imagine how they must feel watching seagulls! I will start collecting signatures shortly.

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  12. 12. Steve Skeete 1:14 pm 11/15/2011

    I would like you to please stop calling me “gay” or homosexual when you have no real basis for doing so. After all, you yourself said that you did not know if I was “actually” homosexual. However beginning with your caption your entire article is written to give the impression that I am. What is wrong with you? Can’t two male buddies like to be around each other and hang out together without being called “gay”? Am I to be considered “gay” simply because I prefer the company of my male Buddy to that of giggly females? And since when does populating the penguin world depend on just me? Why not browbeat all the other males of the specie? Listen carefully, I will say this only once, “I am not gay”. So cease and desist or the next voice you will hear will be that of my attorney. Thank you!

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  13. 13. montag86 12:49 pm 11/16/2011

    What about homoparentality? The best choice to ensure the survival of the species is to inseminate artificially the female and return the child to the two gay fathers. This way the continuation of the species will be ensured by a loving gay-penguin family!!

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