Giant 5-foot tall penguins roamed New Zealand with the dinosaurs

The discovery of one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world reveals higher diversity of early penguins than previously assumed.

Along the Waipara River in New Zealand's Canterbury region are sites rich in avian fossils, many of which were entombed in marine sand not long (relatively speaking) after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

One of the more intriguing fossil finds there of late is that of a giant penguin discovered by ornithologist Dr. Gerald Mayr from the Senckenberg Society for Natural Research and a team of colleagues from New Zealand. The Waimanu penguin had a man-sized body length of 150 centimeters (5 feet) and dates back to the Paleocene era with an age of some 61 million years. It is among the oldest penguin fossils in the world.

But what makes the Waimanu even more interesting is that the bones are significantly different from other penguin fossils from the same time period, revealing that the diversity of Paleocene penguins was higher than previously thought. The researchers conclude that because of this, the evolution of penguins started much earlier than assumed, likely already during the age of dinosaurs.

"What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history," says Mayr. "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."

The new (old) penguin lived some 61 million years ago; its impressive size makes it almost as large as the much younger Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, the largest known fossil penguin, which lived around 45 to 33 million years ago. "This shows that penguins reached an enormous size quite early in their evolutionary history, around 60 million years ago," says Mayr.

"The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed," says 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."

Below, an artist illustration of Waimanu on the beach.

Waimanu© Chris Gaskin & Geology Museum University of Otago

For more, see: A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world's oldest penguins in The Science of Nature.

Tags: Animals | Birds | New Zealand

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