Plants and Animals

Scientists Discover Fossils from the Most Massive Penguin Ever

August 1, 2014 | by Janet Fang

Photo credit: Palaeeudyptes klekowskii. The bones pictured here were previously published in C.A. Hospitaleche & M. Reguero, Geobios 2014

Colossal penguin bones from the extinct species Palaeeudyptes klekowskii have been discovered on an island in the Antarctic Peninsula. According to a new study published in Comptes Rendus Palevol last week, these newly uncovered bones belonged to a 2-meter-long behemoth, the tallest and heaviest penguin ever described. 

Thomas Huxley discovered a genus of giant extinct penguins named Palaeeudyptes back in 1859, and four species have since been identified. Palaeeudyptes klekowskii, described in 1990, is the biggest of the genus, and it lived 37 to 40 million years ago. This was "a wonderful time for penguins, when 10 to 14 species lived together along the Antarctic coast," Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche from Museo de La Plata in Argentina tells New Scientist.

Penguins today range wildly in size, from the 40-centimeter (1.3-foot) little blue penguin to the 116-centimeter (3.8-foot) emperor penguin. But if you throw in extinct penguins, the range gets much, much wider. The tiniest penguin is Eretiscus tonni from Patagonia, about 35 centimeters (1.1 feet) in length and 0.94 kilograms (2 pounds) of body mass. And until now, the biggest penguin species on record was Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, at 166.3 centimeters long (5.5 feet) and weighing 82.8 kilograms (182 pounds). 

In this new work, Hospitaleche describes two new Palaeeudyptes klekowskii bones of “striking dimensions.” The tarsometatarsus (a long bone in the leg formed by the fusion of tarsal and metatarsal structures) and a fragmented humerus (the forelimb, or its wing) were collected at a Late Eocene site on Seymour Island in the Antarctic Peninsula.

According to her estimates, the tarsometatarsus -- at 9.13 centimeters (3.6 inches) -- would belong to “the largest and most massive penguin” described so far. It would have been up to 202 centimeters (6.6 feet) long from the tip of the toes to the end of the bill, weighing up to 116.21 kilograms (256 pounds). 

Even though the humerus isn’t an appropriate measure for body mass or body length assessments, it did also belong to a huge penguin. In this image on the right, you can see various views of the newly discovered humerus (A-E) and tarsometatarsus (F-K). 

This giant bird was probably a piscivorous penguin, with a strong diving ability for catching prey. It could have stayed underwater for 40 minutes, Hospitaleche says

Seymour Island has yielded other penguin fossils before. Earlier this year, Hospitaleche and colleagues described the best-preserved Palaeeudyptes klekowskii fossil skeleton yet (pictured above). 

Images: C.A. Hospitaleche & M. Reguero, Geobios 2014 (top), C.A. Hospitaleche, Comptes Rendus Palevol 2014 (middle)

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