What do you do when you discover what is possibly the largest penguin ever? You name it after your mum. This is what Curator Vertebrates Alan Tennyson – who has a paper on the discovery out today – did.
The emperor penguin is a truly impressive mound of bird but it would have been relatively small in comparison with some of the giant penguins that lived in the distant past.
In an article published in Nature Communications today, our team of researchers from Germany and New Zealand reveal what might have been the largest penguin to ever live.
We discovered the fossil in a boulder in Otago, southern New Zealand. Painstaking extraction work slowly revealed that the rock contained a multitude of jumbled bones of a colossal penguin.
Both flipper, body, and leg bones were preserved and all these are truly huge. Based on these bones, we estimate that the bird in life would have stood 1.65 m tall and weighed 100 kg. This compares with the emperor penguin that stands at 1.1 m tall and weighs 23 kg and the average human at 1.65 m tall and 62 kg.
Two isolated fragmentary fossil penguin bones from Antarctica may well be from a larger penguin, which has been estimated to be up to 2 m long, but the new New Zealand specimen has many bone elements, which prove that its proportions were consistently large throughout its body.
The other startling thing about the new colossal fossil is its ancient age. At 55-60 million years old, it is nearly as old as the earliest penguin ancestors ever found (and only just after the mass extinction 66 million years ago that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs). These slightly older penguin fossils were found in Canterbury, New Zealand, in rocks 58-62 million years old and were from birds ranging in size from today’s yellow-eyed penguin to the emperor penguin.
So our new fossil shows that extreme gigantism in penguins evolved at the dawn of penguin history.
Several species in later epochs were also ‘giants’ (larger than emperor penguins). The new colossal bird shows that huge penguins were not unusual throughout most of penguin history. However all these large kinds died out about 20 million years ago and we speculate that this may be because of the evolution of seals and toothed whales which ate them – or out-competed them for food.
We’ve named the new species Kumimanu biceae. Kumimanu meaning ‘monster bird’ in Māori, and biceae honouring my mother, Bice Tennyson, who fostered my interest in natural history.
Many thanks to Al Mannering for his outstanding preparation skills.
You can read the full article here:
Gerald Mayr, R. Paul Scofield, Vanesa L. De Pietri, Alan J. D. Tennyson. A Paleocene penguin from New Zealand substantiates multiple origins of gigantism in fossil Sphenisciformes. Nature Communications, 12 December 2017.