New Zealand’s Neolithic Penguins

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Artist's depiction based on reconstructed skeleton. Photograph: University of Otago/APLong-time readers of The Ancient Standard may recall a post from 2007 that discussed the existence of giant penguins in Peru, but also lamented the unpublished data on even larger penguins that were thought to exist off the coast of New Zealand millions of years later.

Well, good news! Scientists have finally published their report on these giant “thinguins” that lived 25 million years ago (during the Oligocene period), based on a full skeletal reconstruction of the creature. The penguins are thought to have reached about 4.3 feet in height, which is just slightly taller than today’s tallest living emperor penguins (4 feet).

"It’s pretty exciting, we’ve got enough from three key specimens to get a pretty reliable construction of its body size," says University of Otago’s geology professor Ewan Fordyce. He and his team discovered the penguin bones 35 years ago, and recently teamed up with North Caroline State University research assistant professor Dan Ksepka to create the reconstruction.

While they used a king penguin to help build the ancient model, the main difference between ancient and modern penguins is in body composition—where today’s penguins tend to be a little more squat and round, these ancient flightless birds were much more streamlined. Their flippers were long and tapered, with narrow, spear-like beaks, and elongated midsections.

Based on the evidence, it appears that these giant New Zealand penguins lived alongside a number of other penguin species as well, some also giant and some with more familiar body types. Much like the species diversity seen today in the Falkland Islands, they were likely able to co-exist due to different food preferences (thus eliminating or reducing competition for resources).

Ewan Fordyce examining a composite skeleton of a giant penguin. Photograph: Gabriel Aguirre/APDuring the Prehistoric period in New Zealand, the vast majority of what we see today was submerged, leaving only small pieces of land above the water’s surface. Similar to many modern species, this ancient habitat of shallow waves, plenty of food, and defensive positioning from predators would have been ideal for these giant creatures.

The team who worked on the reconstruction and research project has given this newfound ancient species the Maori name Kairuku waitaki / Kairuku grebneffi, where kairuku roughly translates as “diver who returns with food.”

Why did the species become extinct? Likely for the same reasons it happens to other species—more aggressive predators, evolving competition for resources from other creatures, or environmental change.

The full study on this remarkable ancient species will be published in this month’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (March 2012).


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