Giant Human-Sized Penguin Once Swam The Seas Of New Zealand

Model of the ancient penguin alongside an average-height woman. Canterbury Museum CC BY NC

A new species of ancient giant penguin measuring 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) tall has been identified from fossils found in North Canterbury, New Zealand. Dating back to the Paleocene Epoch between 66 and 56 million years ago, Crossvallia waiparensis joins the ranks of other regional megafauna – such as the world’s largest parrot, giant burrowing bat, and the moa – as the oldest known and one of the largest penguins to ever roam the planet.

Publishing their findings in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, researchers analyzed fossils discovered in marine deposits at the Waipara Greensand Site. Four other species of giant ancient penguins have been discovered here, with the first recovery being more than 30 years ago, making the site significant for understanding the evolution of penguins over tens of millions of years.

"The fossils discovered there have made our understanding of penguin evolution a whole lot clearer," said study co-author Gerald Mayr, from the Senckenberg Natural History Museum, in a statement. "There's more to come, too – more fossils which we think represent new species are still awaiting description."

Altogether, five species of giant penguins of varying sizes have been reported from Waipara Greensand, with even more to come.

An analysis of the bones suggests that C. waiparensis is most closely related to Crossvallia unienwillia, another giant species that lived during this time whose partial skeleton was uncovered in Antarctica in 2000. Both birds had unique feet that suggest swimming played a much larger role in their lives than those of modern penguins. Either that or they hadn’t yet adapted to standing upright like the waddling birds we know today. Together, the two help scientists bridge gaps in understanding evolutionary lineages of ancient species, particularly in relation to those from New Zealand and its icy neighbor to the south.

"When the Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today – Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates,” said study author Paul Scofield, a Canterbury Museum curator.

Because penguins from different regions exhibit different sizes, the researchers write that segregation and competition at breeding sites likely played a role in their evolution and giant-sized adaptations. But there weren’t many species of giant penguins at the time, suggesting that competition with other marine mammals likely drove the giant penguin to extinction.

The remains of C. waiparensis will be displayed in an exhibit later this year at the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand.

Leg bones of a new penguin species from the Waipara Greensand add to the diversity of large-sized Sphenisciformes in the Paleocene of New Zealand. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology 
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