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June 2019

Penguin Pride – Same Sex Behaviour in Penguins

Martin Franklin with Humboldt Penguin

Penguin Pride – Same Sex Behaviour in Penguins

by Martin Franklin

With June being LGBT+ Pride Month in many places around the world, it seems an appropriate time to write about some of the many documented examples of penguin couples that frequently display same-sex sexual behaviour (including courting displays, sexual activity and nest-building activity).

Before diving in, however, it’s worth mentioning (given the potentially misleading title above) that the generally accepted collective noun for a group of penguins is not a (leonine) “pride”, but rather a “raft” (if they are in the water), or a “waddle” (if they are on land).

Same Sex Behaviour in Penguins

Same-sex sexual behaviour has been observed in numerous penguin species, including King penguins at Berlin Zoo, African penguins at Toronto Zoo, Gentoo penguins at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, and Chinstrap penguins at Central Park Zoo in New York. In the latter case, the relevant pair (Roy and Silo, both male) even successfully incubated another pair’s egg, resulting in a chick named Tango. This in turn even resulted in a popular children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three“.

Same Sex Behaviour in Wild Animals

Such behaviour is not limited to penguins, of course: same-sex sexual interaction has been observed in hundreds of animal species1, in both zoos and in the wild. In some cases, this may be “sociosexual” behaviour designed at least in part to achieve a social goal (e.g. facilitating food sharing, forming alliances, reducing social tensions or facilitating reconciliations), as seen, for example, in bonobos2. In other cases, however, such behaviour appears to have no sociosexual element. For example, around 8% of rams in particular domestic sheep breeds seem exclusively to choose to mount other males rather than females when given the option3.

But back to penguins, and, in particular, Humboldt penguins (a species I observe on a near-daily basis, in the course of my work as a bird keeper at ZSL London Zoo). Zoo am Meer Bremerhaven in Germany has reported same-sex sexual behaviour in Humboldt penguins, and the same is true of our observations at ZSL London Zoo.

In this context, it’s particularly serendipitous that the Humboldt penguin is named after the Humboldt ocean current (off the west coast of South America), which itself is named after the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who himself the evidence indicates to have been homosexual (or possibly bisexual).

Excluding recently hatched chicks, there are currently 93 penguins on Penguin Beach at ZSL London Zoo (77 adults and 16 juveniles). This number, along with the male/female split being broadly equal, means these birds have significant partner-choice. There are currently 34 nesting pairs, of which 3 are established same-sex pairs.

The first of these are Ronnie and Reggie (pictured, both 17 years old), a highly vocal and well-built all-male pair who certainly make their presence known on the far right-hand side of the beach, and who think little of barging other penguins out of the way at feeding time. (People with knowledge of the Kray Twins, who terrorised the East End of London in the 1950s and 60s, will appreciate the appropriateness of these birds’ names). They do, however, also have a nurturing side: recently when another pair’s egg needed incubation, Ronnie and Reggie took on the job, diligently taking it in turns to incubate the egg themselves.

Ronnie and Reggie (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)

Next up are Zimmer (21 years old) and Nadja (16), our only all-female pair (pictured). Zimmer also happens to be our oldest penguin: the species can live up to around 20 years in the wild, but can fare significantly better than that in zoos (due to better nutrition, better medical care, lack of predation, and the absence of negative human impact on their environment).

Zimmer and Nadja (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)

Martin (17) and Dev (13) are our other all-male couple (pictured), and tend to hang out on the left-hand side of the beach. We placed a new nest box in this area of the beach recently, and within a couple of hours this pair had abandoned their old nest box and established themselves inside the new one.

Martin and Dev (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)

Finally, mention must be made of Rainbow (1) (pictured), who was named on the Pride Parade weekend around this time last year, and whose name was chosen specifically in honour of the LGBT+ community. She even sports identity beads on her wing reflecting this – the only penguin on the beach not to have a bead sequence that references its year of hatch. As Rainbow is still a juvenile, it remains to be seen with whom she may choose to form a pair-bond in the future.

Rainbow (© Martin Franklin/ZSL)

Did you learn something new about penguins by reading this blog? A nice way to wrap up LGBT Pride Month. Let us know your thoughts. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

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1 Bagemihl, B. (1999). Biological exuberance: Animal homosexual and natural diversity. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

2 de Waal, F. B. M. (1987). Tension regulation and nonreproductive functions of sex in captive bonobos (Pan paniscus). National Geographic Researcher, 3, 318–338.

3 Roselli, C. E., Larkin, K., Resko, J. A., Stellflug, J. N., Stormshak, F. (2004). The volume of a sexually dimorphic nucleus in the ovine medial preoptic area/anterior hypothalamus varies with sexual partner preference. Endocrinology, 145, 478–483.


© Martin Franklin 2019

Martin Franklin is a bird keeper at ZSL London Zoo, and works extensively with Humboldt penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of ZSL.

A conservation story: Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguin

A conservation story: Humboldt Penguins

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

The Humboldt Penguin is a species found along coastal Peru and Chile. Extremely dependent on food brought by cold waters, this species faces many human-induced threats. Lately, scientists have been trying to protect their remaining colonies to ensure the survival of these penguins. Let’s discover what’s on the horizon for these fellows!

The first time I visited a colony of Humboldt Penguins was in 1992. At the time, I was only a kid and I was not sure why we had to take such a long trip just to go to the beach. My family promised me that the trip was worth it, because we were going to see many interesting wild animals.

Our first stop was locally known as Playa Pinguino or “Penguin Beach.” I remember I was initially disappointed, because the beach did not look like a nice place for swimming and instead there were slimy seaweeds everywhere. However, that initial feeling quickly vanished, when everyone started pointing towards the rocks. That is when I saw little clumsy figures jumping out of the ocean — the first time I saw Humboldt Penguins.

Map showing the breeding range of Humboldt Penguins

Penguin Beach is probably not a good place for swimming — but the birds love it!

I discovered later that due to the great faunal diversity that includes sea lions, seabirds and plenty of endemic fishes, this site, known as Punta San Juan, was formally upgraded to a protected area in 2009. Nevertheless, this area has been managed for extractive purposes since 1909 and the monitoring of Humboldt Penguins was already in place when I visited that colony. Currently, Punta San Juan holds one of Peru’s largest colonies of Humboldt Penguins and has an active seabird-monitoring program.

Humboldt Penguin populations have suffered several human impacts throughout their range in the past. This species has experienced dramatic declines in numbers and a disappearance of breeding colonies1 , now being classified as Vulnerable.

In the past, the biggest threat to Humboldt Penguins was guano harvesting

Historically, the Humboldt Penguin was affected by extensive guano harvesting in both Peru and Chile, which disturbed their nesting habitat. Moreover, during the El Niño event of 1982-1983, the global population experienced a 3-fold drop from approximately 16,000 – 20,000 birds down to 5,000 – 6,000 individuals1. Despite high uncertainty about the future of their populations, the management of key colonies could bring good news for this species.

The biggest threats for Humboldt Penguins are entanglement on fishing nets, competition for food with commercial fisheries, human disturbance in colonies, invasive predators (e.g. rats and mice) and poaching of adults. “Research that targets the most important threats for Humboldt Penguins could bring promising results for colony management,” explains seabird expert Dr. Carlos Zavalaga to me, a full-time researcher of the Marine Ecosystems Research Unit of Universidad Científica del Sur, Lima Peru.

What steps are being done to protect Humboldt Penguins now?

According to Dr. Zavalaga, there are still many challenges ahead to achieve total protection of penguins, but several research organizations have projects underway targeting the most pressing issues. For example, in Peru they are working to determine at-sea movements of penguins to examine how they use the area around their colonies and how this overlaps with commercial and artisanal fisheries. In addition, they are trying to understand the effects of anthropogenic disturbance (e.g., fishing proximity, tourist boats) on breeding penguins.

“We have conservative estimates that along the Peruvian coast, penguin populations and breeding sites might be increasing since the early 90’s. Even in Northern Peru, there were islands with no recent records of breeding penguins and now they are showing signs of recovery,” added Dr. Zavalaga. Such protection efforts are only possible thanks to coordinated work between universities, NGOs, the government and private (national and foreign) conservation organizations.

If the research shows significant overlaps between foraging ranges of Humboldt Penguins and the areas used for fishing, it will be of utmost importance that the government establishes Marine Protected Areas around those colonies. Such areas will support a decline in the frequency of negative interactions between penguins and humans, but will also strengthen the protection of a fragile ecosystem.

Visiting the penguin colony when I was a child had a long-lasting positive impact in my life and I feel optimistic knowing there are so many organizations, researchers and volunteers engaged in protecting such an iconic species. I could not imagine a future without Humboldt Penguins.

Did you know about Humboldt Penguins or what do you think about them? Let us know! Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International. We more than appreciate your support!

You can also read more about penguins in the following blogs:


BirdLife International 2018. Spheniscus humboldti. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697817A132605004.
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