Meet Sphen and Magic, the Same-Sex Penguin Couple Raising an Egg in Captivity

male penguins and their nest
Two male penguins, Sphen and Magic, are together raising a foster egg at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. (Image credit: Sea Life Sydney Aquarium)

If you've been keeping up on your Australian penguin gossip blogs (of course, you have!), then you already know about Sydney's hottest new celebrity couple, "Sphengic."

Sphen and Magic (together, "Sphengic") are two male gentoo penguins living in captivity at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. They are young, in love and about to enter the rare pantheon of same-sex penguin co-parents, thanks to a foster egg that the aquarium has generously entrusted to the couple's care.

According to a statement from Sea Life Sydney, Sphen and Magic took a fancy to one another several months ago, before breeding season began. The two penguins soon "became inseparable," the statement said, and were often seen taking long waddles around their enclosure together, swimming side by side and even gathering pebbles to build a shared nest. 

Related: Animal sex: How birds do it

"Gentoo parents keep their eggs warm on pebble nesting rings," the statement said. "Swapping duties daily, while one of the parents are doing their best to incubate the egg, the other is patrolling the perimeters of the nest, warding off any potential pebble thieves or over-inquisitive neighbors."

By the time breeding season started, Sphen and Magic had amassed more stones than any other penguin couple in their enclosure and seemed eager to incubate an egg. The problem was, of course, that neither Sphen nor Magic could lay one of his own. So, the aquarium gave the two a "dummy" egg to practice taking care of, lest the couple feel left out of the mating season hubbub. 

The duo proved such reliable parents that the aquarium later provided them with a real egg, laid by another gentoo couple that already had their flippers full. According to the aquarium, Sphen and Magic "make a great team" for parental duties, and their egg seems well taken care of.

If and when Sphengic's egg finally hatches, it won't be the first time two male penguins became daddies in captivity. In 2000, two chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo successfully hatched a foster egg in New York's Central Park Zoo. Their healthy baby, named Tango, even went on to become the star of a children's book, "And Tango Makes Three" (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2005).

Alas, the culture of Silo and Roy's enclosure did not allow their love to last. In 2004, a more aggressive couple bullied the duo out of their nest, and their relationship never recovered from the disturbance. Silo eventually mated with a sexy SeaWorld penguin named Scrappy, while Roy fell in with a group of chill male bachelors, The New York Times reported.

Silo's new romance might seem like a betrayal, but it's actually pretty common in penguin love — as is same-sex penguin flirting in the first place. According to a 2010 study in Ethology: International Journal of Behavioural Biology, in a king penguin colony living in the Desolation Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, researchers observed male-on-male courtship in 15 out of 53 penguin pairs, or about 28 percent of courting couples.

Of this group, only two male penguins became fully "bonded" with one another; i.e., they learned their partner's unique call, so the two could reunite if separated. Before the mating season's end, however, both males had hitched up with separate female partners and were seen protecting eggs.

While same-sex courtship may be common among male penguins, same-sex parenting is a far rarer and harder task for these birds. Here's wishing the best for Sphen, Magic and their little bundle of feathers on the way!

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest,, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.