Long-legged fossilized giant penguin identified as new species

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In January 2006, a group of children from a summer camp in Waikato, New Zealand, went on a fossil hunting excursion with a senior archaeologist. They kayaked to the upper port of Kawhia, a hot spot for this kind of activity, and they expected to find shell fossils and the like, as they regularly did on these Junior Naturalist Club expeditions. from Hamilton.

But that day, just before heading home, near where they had left the kayaks and well below the high tide line, they noticed a trace 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 yet to be found.

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology by scientists at Massey University, this was a new species of prehistoric penguin. The discovery helps scientists fill in some gaps in natural history. Penguin species have a fossil record dating back almost to the age of dinosaurs and can say a lot about the ecology of the past and present.

“Finding fossils near us reminds us that we share our environment with animals that are the descendants of lineages that go back to distant times,” said Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, who oversaw all of the work on the fossil penguin. since its discovery. “We have to act like Guardian – keepers – for these descendants if we want to see these lines continue in the future.

a) Line drawing of the sample; b) photo of the specimen; c) size comparison of Foot diver and an emperor penguin. Photograph: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

A month after the discovery, the team returned to the scene with equipment ranging from gasoline-powered concrete saws and electric jackhammers to chisels and crowbars, and the kids and adults alike had a day out. to cut out the fossil from the sandstone. It was donated to the Waikato Museum, Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, and researchers at Massey University and the Bruce Museum began to conduct cutting-edge studies on the fossil.

Scientists concluded that the penguin was between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old and came from a time when much of Waikato was underwater, according to Daniel Thomas, senior lecturer in zoology. at Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences.

“The penguin is similar to the giant Kairuku penguins first described, but has much longer legs,” Thomas said. This is why he was called waewaeroa, which in Maori means “long legs”. Having legs this long would have made this species much larger than other ancient giant penguins, and it is estimated to be around 1.6 meters long from toe to tip of beak and 1.4 meters high in standing position. This, in turn, would affect how fast he could swim and how deep he could dive.

“Giant penguins love Foot diver are much bigger than any diving seabird today, and we know that body size can be a big factor when thinking about ecology, ”said Safey. “How and why did the penguins become giants, and why are there no more giants?” Well-preserved fossils like this can help us answer these questions. “

Little is known about the existence of giant penguins in New Zealand, especially since records from the North Island have long been limited to a few fragmentary specimens. So, adding this new information to the rich penguin fossil record provides insight into how penguins adapted and the evolution of the art of adaptation itself.

Finding out that this fossil penguin is a new species has also been gratifying for the kids at Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club and will encourage other young people to get closer to nature.

Steffan Safey was 13 at the time of the discovery. “It’s a bit surreal to know that a discovery we made when we were kids so many years ago contributes to academia today. And it’s even a new species, ”said Safey.

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