New Zealand is currently home to three of the world’s penguin species, including the smallest living penguin: the little penguin. A recent discovery of two fossilized skulls has found a potentially even smaller penguin species that might have been the ancestor to those living today. Meet Eudyptula wilsonae.
The new fossil specimens were found in the Tangahoe Formation in the south of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island. The two fossil skulls are extremely similar to the skulls of living little blue penguins but are slightly narrower. While the lack of other bones makes it hard to judge the complete size, the tiny new penguin species may have been around the same size as a little penguin. Living little penguins are around 30 centimeters tall (11.8 inches) and weigh a maximum of 1.5 kilograms ( 3.3 pounds).
New Zealand is also home to some of the largest penguin species to ever walk the Earth, some the size of a human. Earlier this year two new species of giant ancient penguins were discovered that tipped the scales in the other direction to E. wilsonae. The largest, Kumimanu fordycei, weighed in at 154 kilograms (340 pounds), beating the previous whopper, Kumimanu biceae, which is thought to have weighed around 100 kilograms (220 pounds).
The new species has been named Wilson's little penguin (Eudyptula wilsonae), after the ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson who was a conservationist and seabird researcher and cofounder of an NGO that works to conserve seaboard habitats on the west coast of New Zealand.
The team thinks the skulls are around 3 million years old and could provide more important information about how the penguins survived in seas that were much warmer than they are today.
“These newly discovered fossils show little penguins like kororā have been part of coastal ecosystems of Zealandia for at least 3 million years," said lead author Dr Daniel Thomas in a statement. "This is important when thinking about the origins of these penguins, the evolution of the seabird diversity of Aotearoa, and the dynamic environment in which they live. For one thing, the climate has changed a lot over this time and this lineage has been robust to those changes.”
From the fossils, the research suggests that the body size and skull shape of little penguins have not changed since the Pliocene, despite the changes to the climate and environment in the last 3 million years. Overall the team thinks that this new species could be the ancestor to the living little penguins that are found in Australia and New Zealand today.
The paper is published in The Journal of Paleontology.