World's Oldest Penguins More Diverse than Previously Thought

Thursday 23 February 2017

Mayr G, De Pietri V L, Scofield, R P (2017). A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world’s oldest penguins. The Science of Nature 104: 9.

Foot bones of the new giant Waipara penguin (left)

The foot bones of the new giant Waipara penguin (left), compared to Waimanu manneringi from the same fossil deposits (centre) and an Emperor Penguin, the largest penguin alive today © Senckenberg Research Institute

The fossilised lower leg bones of a giant penguin that lived 61 million years ago in New Zealand have provided scientists with new insights into the early evolutionary history of penguins. In this study, researchers postulate that penguins had attained a high level of morphological diversity early in their evolutionary history, suggesting that their evolution began much earlier than previously thought.

According to the authors Paul Scofield and Vanesa De Pietri (Canterbury Museum), and lead author Gerald Mayr (Senckenberg Research Institute), the enormous penguin found in New Zealand stood about 150 cm tall, making it nearly as big as the largest-known fossil penguin that lived in Antarctica during the Eocene epoch (45 to 33 million years ago) and is therefore much younger than the newly-described fossil.

The fossil, comprising of a lower leg bone (tarsometatarsus) and foot phalanges, was discovered by amateur fossil collector Mr Leigh Love in rocks near Waipara, Canterbury, and is held in Canterbury Museum’s collection. The bones of this 61 million-year-old penguin differ substantially in morphology from previous penguin finds of a similar age, such as the world’s oldest penguin Waimanu manneringi. Penguins, therefore, had reached enormous proportions and had attained a significant degree of morphological diversity early on in their evolutionary history. Giant penguins lasted for more than 30 million years.

The research team hypothesized that because the diversity of Palaeocene penguins, living between 66 and 56 million years ago, was greater than previously assumed, they must have evolved during the 'Age of the Dinosaurs', during the Late Cretaceous period.

Canterbury’s Waipara River is renowned for its rare but well preserved bird fossils which were deposited only 4 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Other significant finds from these deposits include turtles, many species of shark, giant fish, two types of flying birds and two species of a penguin-like bird named Waimanu. Until now it had been assumed that Waimanu-type penguins were the only penguins alive during this time.

See the publication here

List image: The 1.5 metre tall Waipara giant penguin (centre) in comparison to a 1.8 metre tall human and the living Emperor Penguin (1.2 metres tall). © Senckenberg Research Institute

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