Fossil bones of largest penguin to ever live discovered in New Zealand

largest penguin

Fossil bones of two newly described penguin species, one believed to be the largest penguin to ever live – weighing over 150 kilograms (330 pounds), more than three times the size of the largest living penguins – were discovered in New Zealand. .

An international team, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, reported the discovery in the Journal of Paleontology. The paper’s lead author, Alan Tennyson of Museum New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, discovered the fossils in 57-million-year-old beach rocks in North Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island. Zealand, between 2016 and 2017.

The fossils were later exposed from within the rocks by Al Manning. They have been identified as being between 59.5 and 55.5 million years old, which marks their existence around five to 10 million years after the end of the Cretaceous extinction that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. non-avian.

The team used laser scanners to create digital models of the bones and compare them to other fossil species, to flying diving birds like penguins, and to modern penguins. To estimate the size of the new species, the team measured hundreds of modern penguin bones and calculated a regression using the dimensions of the fin bones to predict weight.

They concluded that the largest fin bones belonged to a penguin that weighed a staggering 154 kg (340 lbs). By comparison, emperor penguins, the largest and heaviest of all living penguins, typically weigh between 22 and 45 kg (48.5–99 lb).

Would have weighed more than Shaq

“Fossils give us evidence for the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is really startling,” said co-author Daniel Field of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Many fossil penguins have grown to enormous sizes, easily eclipsing the largest penguins alive today. Our new species, Kumimanu Fordycei, is the largest fossil penguin ever discovered – weighing around 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than [basketball player] Shaquille O’Neal at the height of his domination!

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Skeletal illustrations of Kumimanu fordycei, Petradyptes stonehousei, and a modern emperor penguin showing the sizes of new fossil species. Credit: Simone Giovanardi

The team named the new species Kumimanu Fordycei in honor of Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago. “Ewan Fordyce is a legend in our field, but also one of the most generous mentors I have ever known,” said first author Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Without Ewan’s field program, we wouldn’t even know there are many iconic fossil species out there, so it’s only fitting that he has his own penguin namesake.”

Several specimens of a second penguin species were also found, providing a detailed view of the skeleton. Double Petradyptes stonehousei, he weighed 50 kg (110 lb), smaller than Kumimanu Fordycei but still well above the weight of an emperor penguin. The name combines the Greek “petra” for rock and “dyptes” for diver, a pun on the diving bird kept in a rock. “Stonehousei” honors the late Dr. Bernard Stonehouse (1926-2014), the first person to observe the full reproductive cycle of the emperor penguin, a milestone in penguin biology.

The first penguins of the Titanic

These two newly described species show that penguins grew very large early in their evolutionary history, millions of years before they refined their finning apparatus. The team observed that both species retained primitive characteristics such as thinner fin bones and muscle attachment points that resemble those of flying birds.

When asked why early penguins grew to titanic proportions, Ksepka speculated that it made them more efficient in water. “The size has many advantages,” he said. “A larger penguin could capture larger prey and, more importantly, it would have better retained body temperature in cold waters. It is possible that breaking the 100 pound barrier allowed early penguins to spread from New Zealand to other parts of the world.

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“When we start looking at these finds not as isolated bones but as parts of a living animal as a whole, then a picture begins to form,” said co-author Daniel Thomas of Massey University of ‘Auckland. “Large warm-blooded marine animals alive today can dive to great depths. This raises questions as to whether Kumimanu Fordycei had an ecology that today’s penguins do not, being able to reach deeper waters and find food that is not accessible to living penguins.

Kumimanu Fordycei would have been quite an amazing sight on New Zealand beaches 57 million years ago, and the combination of its size and the incomplete nature of its fossil remains makes it one of the most intriguing fossil birds never discovered,” said Field, who is also curator of ornithology at the Cambridge Museum of Zoology. “Hopefully, future fossil discoveries will shed more light on the biology of this amazing primitive penguin. »

More information: Daniel T. Ksepka et al, The Largest Known Fossil Penguin provides insight into the early evolution of sphenisciform body size and fin anatomy, Journal of Paleontology (2023). Read the summary.

Thanks to the University of Cambridge for this news.

Witness the agility of a penguin as it feeds on a school of fish