Ancient colossal penguin bones discovered in Otago

Ancient colossal penguin bones discovered in Otago

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.

An array of bones
Partial bones of the new colossal fossil penguin (black) compared with those of an emperor penguin (pale). Clockwise from top left: humeri, vertebrae, coracoids, tibiotarsi. Photograph by Jean-Claude Stahl, Te Papa

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.

Penguin illustration Tess Cole
The new colossal penguin beside an emperor penguin. Illustration by Tess Cole.

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.

Alan shows the location of the bones on a scale drawing of the penguin
Alan shows the location of the bones on a scale drawing of the penguin, 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge

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.

Alan and his mother Bice looking at the penguin bones
Alan and his mother Bice looking at the penguin bones, 2017. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

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.

12 Comments

    1. Author

      Cheers!

  1. Also, I really welcome your choice to publish open access so all NZers (and everyone else) can read about this great work. Nature Communications, I imagine, is not a cheap option 🙂 I’d love to hear your thoughts on the decisions you made as to where to submit/publish.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment Richard. It is always tricky figuring out where to publish something – we have to weigh up various factors like trying to get it out to the maximum potential audience but making sure that a local audience hears about it too. Then there is the major issue of getting a journal to actually agree to publish it, based on peer-reviewed referee reports, etc. Then cost is another factor – in this case Te Papa & Canterbury Museum felt it was worth getting it published in a high-profile, open-access journal – so we were lucky to have the support to get it published in Nature Communications. The same article was previously ‘rejected’ from a ‘lower ranking’ journal, so publishing is a bit of a lottery. Regards Alan

  2. Amazing work and hopefully much more to come, well done

    1. Author

      Thanks Maureen – yes there are several more fossil penguins still waiting to be described!

  3. That is amazing well done! What painstaking work,
    but such a very worthwhile research project.
    Love the name, what a wonderful tribute to your special Mum Awesome!!

    1. Author

      Thank you!

  4. Congratulations Alan,
    now that I’ve seen the paper I will take back all those bad thoughts that I was having whilst chipping the rock away from those bones!

    1. Author

      Thanks Al – we certainly couldn’t have done it without you

  5. Amazing!!! How exciting!!! Well done for naming after your mum!!!!

    1. Author

      Thank you!

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