New Fossil Suggests More Variety Among The Oldest Extinct Penguins

Colony of Emperor Penguins. Mario Hoppmann/Shutterstock

The fossil of an extinct giant penguin has been unearthed in New Zealand – a find that suggests there was a lot of variety in the type of penguins that roamed Earth over 60 million years ago.

As reported in The Science of Nature, the new species is one of the oldest yet, sharing the region of the Waipara River with at least one other species known as Waimanu. But this new penguin was a giant compared to its relatives. The researchers, which are from New Zealand and Germany, estimate it might have reached 150 centimeters (4.92 feet).

"What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history," lead author Dr Gerald Mayr, from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, said in a statement. "The leg bones we examined show that during its lifetime, the newly described penguin was significantly larger than its already described relatives. Moreover, it belongs to a species that is more closely related to penguins from later time periods."

This is not quite the oldest penguin and also not quite the biggest. Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi were just as tall when they lived in Antarctica between 45 and 33 million years ago. What’s surprising is that the new species got to their size just 4 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.

"The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed," continued Mayr. "In turn, this diversity indicates that the first representatives of penguins already arose during the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago."

The bones found belong to the penguin’s leg and feet, and they indicate that these giants were likely moving upright, with the characteristic waddling gait of modern penguins, unlike the Waimanu that moved in a different way.

Hopefully, scientists will find more bone samples from this new species in order to better understand the ancestors of today's cute and cuddly penguins.

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