If you’re a fan of penguins, it might interest you to learn that there were once penguins that were the size of humans roaming the land and swimming in the ocean in New Zealand at one time 60 million years ago during the Paleocene Epoch just after the dinosaurs went extinct.
Found in an eroding riverbank along the Waipara River near the city Christchurch in 2018, amateur scientist Leigh Love unearthed the leg and feet bones of a new species of penguin that reached approximately 5 feet 2 inches in height and weighed around 175 pounds, which is the size of a human being.
“It wasn’t until I got the fossils home and did a little preparation that I realized I had something completely different than what had been found before,” Love said.
That’s when professional scientists got involved and authored a research paper published in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, which notes that “the new species is the second formally named penguin species from the Paleocene of New Zealand that distinctly exceeds the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) in size.”
The Emperor penguin stands around 4 feet tall and lives in Antarctica, which used to be linked to New Zealand before it geologically separated.
Upon the extinction of the dinosaurs and other large species, penguins got a shot at being giants themselves.
According to Phys.org:
Paul Scofield, a co-author of the paper and senior curator at the Canterbury Museum, said the discovery is significant because the species is similar to another giant penguin found in Antarctica in 2000 and helps show a connection between the two regions during the Paleocene Epoch.
He said that following the extinction of dinosaurs, marine reptiles and gigantic fish, it seemed there was an evolutionary opportunity for penguins to thrive and grow in size.
“The oceans were ripe for the picking with the lack of mega predators,” Scofield said. “It looks like what was going on was that penguins were just starting to exploit that niche.”
Unfortunately, penguins would not remain giants forever as they were forced to evolve into smaller birds because of fierce competition with ocean mammals for food. Penguins had to adapt by becoming lighter and more agile, something a larger size just would not allow.
The report states:
The fossils from the Waipara Greensand and Hampden Beach document that penguins attained a giant size very early in their evolution. A very large size evolved independently several times within stem group Sphenisciformes. A Paleocene penguin from New Zealand substantiates multiple origins of gigantism in fossil Sphenisciformes and is likely to have been due to inter- and intraspecific competition for breeding sites and food resources on land and in the sea. Whereas competition with other penguins certainly played a major role in the attainment of a giant size, the extinction of very large-sized penguins was probably due to competition with marine mammals.
As one would expect, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different 60 million years ago than they are in the present day.
“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,” Scofield explained in a Canterbury Museum news release.
The fossils helped the team determine that the extinct giant penguins relied on their feet to swim more than modern penguins do. Furthermore, these penguins had not yet mastered standing upright. They also make New Zealand one of the most important sites for ancient penguin fossils., as Dr. Gerald Mayr pointed out in the press release.
Dr. Gerald Mayr says the Waipara Greensand is arguably the world’s most significant site for penguin fossils from the Paleocene Epoch. “The fossils discovered there have made our understanding of penguin evolution a whole lot clearer,” he says. “There’s more to come, too – more fossils which we think represent new species are still awaiting description.”
Other experts have also weighed in with statements of their own even though they were not part of the research.
Massey University Professor John Cockrem, a penguin expert who wasn’t involved in the research, said the discovery was significant in adding to knowledge about giant penguins and cementing New Zealand’s place as the penguin center of the world.
Ewan Fordyce, a paleontology professor from the University of Otago who also wasn’t involved in the research, said the penguin was among the oldest ever found. He said one challenge was trying to determine the overall size of the birds from skeleton fragments, but added that it was a challenge everybody in the field faced.
The fossils are truly extraordinary finds that make penguins an even more interesting species. They also prove just how wonky evolution can be as species go from small to giant to smaller based on the need to adapt to the environment and the challenges faced.
One has to wonder how penguins will evolve to adapt to climate change in the future, or will the shift be too much for them to overcome? Because if that’s the case, we will go from having smaller penguins to having no penguins at all as they become extinct.
Just think about it. Penguins have survived for over 60 million years only to be potentially wiped out because of humans who have only been on the planet for tens of thousands of years. It’s a sobering thought that should result in global action before it’s too late. Future generations should be able to see living penguins, not just fossils.
Here’s a brief report on the find via YouTube:
Featured Image: Wikimedia