Giant penguin discovered in New Zealand

Primeval Bird is one of the oldest and largest known penguins

At 1.60 meters tall, the giant penguin was as tall as many living humans today. © Canterbury Museum
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Fossil giant: Researchers discovered the fossil of a gigantic penguin in New Zealand - he was the size of a small human being. The 60 million year old prehistoric bird is one of the oldest and largest known penguins in the world. With a height of about 1.60 meters, he towered over the largest penguins living today by at least 40 centimeters.

New Zealand was once the home of numerous giant birds: In addition to the two and a half meters high Moas lived there gigantic eagles, the largest parrot in the world and stately penguins, as fossil finds. All of these extinct species, like the Dodos of Mauritius, are classic examples of the island gigantism of birds. They developed unusual body measurements because they lacked large predators because of their geographic isolation.

Ancient and huge

Now Gerald Mayr from the Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt and his colleagues have discovered another representative of the New Zealand giant birds. In the Waipara Greensand fossil deposit, the scientists came across leg bones of a penguin that could not be assigned to any of the previously known species.

With an age of between 66 and 56 million years, the penguin is from the Paleocene era, making it one of the world's oldest known penguin species. But his body measurements are also record-breaking: According to the reconstructions of the research team, the bird in his lifetime must have been around 1.60 meters tall and up to 80 kilograms. For comparison, the largest penguins living today, the emperor penguins, grow to about 1.20 meters tall.

Relationship of Antarctica

As Mayr and his colleagues discovered, the closest known relative of the newly discovered bird is Crossvallia unienwillia - also a Paeocene penguin that researchers discovered in 2000 on the Antarctic continent. The scientists therefore christened their giant penguin Crossvallia waiparensis. display

"When the two Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different than today. Woods were covered in Antarctica, and both regions had a much warmer climate, "says co-author Paul Scofield of the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. According to him, the leg bones of both species suggest that these penguins use their feet even more for swimming than today's penguins.

Early gigantism

C. waiparensis is already the fifth primeval penguin species from the Waipara Greensand site. "The fossils found there have advanced our understanding of the penguin evolution a good deal, " emphasizes Mayr. Thus, according to the researchers, the current find confirms again that the early representatives of these birds were large. "The penguins evidently developed gigantic body sizes very early in their evolution, " says Scofield's colleague Vanesa De Pietri.

The scientists hope to encounter more fossil surprises on New Zealand in the future: "There is certainly more to come. There are many fossil recordings that still need to be described scientifically bei and some of them may be new penguin species, "concludes Mayr. (Alcheringa: To Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 2019; doi: 10.1080 / 03115518.2019.1641619)

Source: Canterbury Museum

- Daniel Albat