Petrified long-legged giant penguin identified as a new species | paleontology
In January 2006, a group of children at summer camp in Waikato, New Zealand, went on a fossil-hunting excursion with an experienced archaeologist. They kayaked to Kawhia Upper Harbor, a hotspot for this type of activity, and expected to find shellfish fossils and the like, as they regularly did on these Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club expeditions.
But that day, just before heading home, they noticed near where they’d parked the kayaks and well below the high tide mark, a trail of fossils that looked much more like prehistoric crustaceans. After careful extraction, an archaeologist later identified it as the most complete fossilized skeleton of an ancient giant penguin discovered to date.
It was a new species of prehistoric penguin, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by scientists at Massey University. The discovery helps scientists fill in some of the gaps in natural history. Penguin species have fossil finds dating almost back to the times of the dinosaurs and can reveal a lot about the ecology of the past and present.
“Finding fossils near where we live is a reminder that we share our environment with animals that are descendants of lineages that go back to the depths of time,” said Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club has overseen all work on the fossil penguin since its discovery. “We should act like kaitiaki – Guardian – for these descendants, if we want to see these lines also in the future. “
A month after the discovery, the team returned with equipment ranging from gasoline-powered concrete saws and electric jackhammers to chisels and crowbars, and kids and adults spent a day cutting the fossil out of the sandstones. It was donated to the Waikato Museum, Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, and researchers from Massey University and the Bruce Museum began conducting cutting-edge studies on the fossil.
Scientists concluded that the penguin is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old, dating from a time when much of Waikato was underwater, according to Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology at the Masseys School of Natural and Computational Sciences.
“The penguin is similar to the giant Kairuku penguins described above, but has much longer legs,” said Thomas. That’s why it’s called waewaeroawhat Māori is for “long legs”. With legs this long, this species would have grown much larger than other ancient giant penguins, and it is estimated that it was about 1.6 meters long from toe to beak tip and 1.4 meters tall when standing. This in turn would affect how fast it could swim and how deep it could dive.
“Like giant penguins Kairuku waewaeroa are much larger than any diving seabird today, and we know that height can be an important factor when thinking about ecology, ”Safey said. “How and why did penguins become giants and why are there no more giants? Well-preserved fossils like this one can help us answer these questions. “
Little is known about the existence of giant penguins in New Zealand, especially since records of the North Island were limited to a few fragmentary specimens for a long time. Adding this new information to the rich penguin fossil record provides insight into how penguins adapt and how the art of adaptation itself evolved.
The discovery that this fossil penguin is a new species was also rewarding for the children of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club and will encourage other young people to reconnect with nature.
Steffan Safey was 13 years old when it was discovered. “It’s kind of surreal to know that a discovery we made so many years ago as children is contributing to the academic world today. And it’s even a new species, ”Safey said.