What 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