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Fossils from an extinct, human-sized penguin found by an amateur palaeontologist in New Zealand

Nick Perry, August 15, 2019 7:00PM AP

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Dr Paul Scofield holds one of the fossilised bones from the monster penguin next to a similar bone from an emperor penguin. Picture: AP media_cameraDr Paul Scofield holds one of the fossilised bones from the monster penguin next to a similar bone from an emperor penguin. Picture: AP

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A citizen scientist has found fossilised* bones from an extinct penguin that was the size of an adult human.

It swam in the ocean around New Zealand about 60 million years ago.

The previously unknown species is believed to have stood about 1.6m tall and weighed up to 80kg. It’s believed to have been one of several species of giant penguins that thrived* soon after dinosaurs died out.

The findings of scientists who studied the penguin bones were published this week in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.

media_cameraArtist’s impression showing the approximate height of a giant penguin next to a human being. Picture: Canterbury Museum via AP

Professor Paul Scofield, a co-author of the paper and senior curator* at the Canterbury Museum, NZ, 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 Palaeocene, which was from 66 million to 56 million years ago.

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,” Prof Scofield said. “It looks like what was going on was that penguins were just starting to exploit* that niche*.”

But he said the giant penguins themselves became extinct within 30 million years as large marine mammals began ruling the waters.

media_cameraDr Paul Scofield holds the fossil, a tibiotarsus, left, next to a similar bone of an emperor penguin. Picture: AP

The monster penguins, named Crossvallia waiparensis, would have been about twice the weight and 30cm taller than the largest species of penguins alive today, emperor penguins.

Prof Scofield said the leg bones indicate the monster penguin’s feet may have played a bigger role in swimming than is the case with penguins today.

media_cameraThe fossil of a type of foot bone called a tarsometatarsus, left, is displayed next to a similar bone from an emperor penguin. Picture: AP

New Zealand is believed to have been the site of many gigantic birds that later became extinct, including the world’s largest parrot (see link in extra reading below), a giant eagle and an emu-like bird called the moa. Scientists say the lack of predators allowed such birds to thrive.

The monster penguin’s bones, from its legs and feet, were found by amateur palaeontologist* Leigh Love about 18 months ago in the Waipara River bed near the South Island city of Christchurch.

Mr Love said he spotted the fragments in an eroding* bank.

“It wasn’t until I got the fossils home and did a little preparation that I realised I had something completely different than what had been found before,” he said.

Mr Love said his passion for collecting fossils began about 14 years ago after illness prevented him from working for several years.

“It inspires me to go out and look for more,” he said.

Massey University of New Zealand 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 centre of the world.

Ewan Fordyce, a palaeontology professor from the University of Otago, NZ, 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.

media_cameraResearchers Vanesa De Pietri (left), Paul Scofield (centre) and Gerald Mayr with fossilised remains of crossvallia waiparensis, the newly discovered extinct penguin species. Picture: AFP/Canterbury Museum/Johannes Van Kan

The monster penguin’s bones were analysed by Prof Scofield and Vanesa De Pietri, another Canterbury Museum curator, along with German palaeontologist Gerald Mayr. The scientists say they have discovered other new penguin species at the remarkable site, which they haven’t yet finished researching.

Emperor Penguins with chick media_cameraEmperor penguins with chicks at Snow Hill, Antarctica. Picture: iStock

BIG AND SMALL PENGUINS
The monster penguin, Crossvallia waiparensis, was about 1.6m tall and weighed up to 80kg.

The biggest living penguin species is the emperor, Aptenodytes forsteri, which lives around Antarctica. It is up to 122cm and weighs up to 45kg, but more often is about 23kg.

Eudyptula minor is the smallest penguin in the world. Its common name is the little penguin or, in Australia, the fairy penguin. It is only 33cm tall and weighs up to 1.5kg.

They are found on Australia’s southern coast including in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, with a tiny, endangered population at Manly, New South Wales. There is a large population at Phillip Island, Victoria. There are also little penguins in New Zealand and it is thought there are some in Chile.

All living penguin species live in the southern hemisphere, apart from the Galapagos penguin.

Penguins can’t fly. Their wings have evolved to become flippers.

Little Penguins/Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula Minor) breeding in Wildlife, Australia (XXXL) media_cameraLittle or fairy penguins at Phillip Island, Victoria. Picture: Lonely Planet

GLOSSARY

  • fossilised: preserved so it becomes a fossil
  • thrived: did really well
  • curator: crafts and looks after, particularly relating to a collection in a museum
  • exploit: make the most of
  • niche: gap or nook
  • palaeontologist:
  • eroding: wearing away

EXTRA READING

Giant parrot nicknamed “Squawkzilla” found

Penguin population collapses

Antarctic emperor pensions go missing

Huge dinosaur tracks found in Queensland

QUICK QUIZ

  1. Apart from size, what was different about this big penguin?
  2. What are some other big birds that once lived in New Zealand?
  3. Why was Mr Love hunting for fossils and where did he find the fossils?
  4. What else do the researchers think they will find at the site?
  5. Describe the emperor penguin.

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Create a graph
How big is this penguin compared to other penguins? Is it taller or shorter than you?

Draw a graph that shows the difference in average height and weight of at least 6 species of penguin, including this extinct giant penguin, found in New Zealand. Include your own height in the chart (You don’t need to include your weight). A number of species of penguin are mentioned in the article. You will need to do some further research to find out about other types. You can choose the type of graph you think is most suitable to show this information.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Mathematics

2. Extension
Imagine that this penguin was still alive today. Create a fact file on this giant penguin using information from the article and your knowledge of other species of penguins that exist in current times. Assume that these giant penguins live similarly to current species, with some differences needed for their size. You may need to do some research on current penguins to help you. You will need to make some assumptions for some of the information. These assumptions should be based on knowledge of other species of penguins and birds in general.

Include the following information in your fact file

  • Name (Scientific and common name)
  • Description of physical features (include diagram)
  • Where they are found
  • What habitat they live in (where do they nest, where do they feed)
  • Diet (what do they eat)
  • Known predators
  • Endangered rating (are they endangered? What dangers are affecting their survival?)

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: The massive extinct penguin doesn’t yet have a common name or nickname. What would you call it?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in animals