As It Happens

Fossil reveals giant new penguin species that lived 27 million years ago

When a group of kids in Hamilton, New Zealand, went on a fossil-hunting field trip 15 years ago, they didn't know how important their discovery would be. They found a fossil of a giant penguin's bones, which paleontologists have now determined is a new species.

The fossil was discovered 15 years ago by a group of children at a summer camp

Co-author Simone Giovanardi made this illustration of the long-legged penguin in the the Waikato region, when the sea level would have been much higher than it is today. (Submitted by Simone Giovanardi)
When a group of kids in Hamilton, New Zealand, went on a fossil-hunting field trip 15 years ago, they didn't know how important their discovery would be. They found a fossil of a giant penguin's bones, which paleontologists have now determined is a new species 6:31

A group of kids in Hamilton, New Zealand, went on a fossil-hunting field trip 15 years ago, and discovered the remains of a penguin. It turned out to be the fossil of a giant penguin's bones — which paleontologists have now determined is a brand new species.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, scientists said that the fossil is also one of the most complete skeletons of a giant penguin discovered so far. 

"To be the first people to lay eyes on that penguin after 27 million years must have been quite a treat," paleontologist and study co-author Daniel Ksepka told As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday.

"And I think that, over time, they've probably become even more excited about it because the penguin now has a name, it's on display in a museum, and it's telling us a lot about the early evolution of penguins."

The penguin's scientific name is Kairuku waewaeroa, which means "long legs" in Maori. Based on the fossil, scientists estimate that the penguin would have been around 1.6 metres long from the tip of its beak to its toes. Standing up it was likely about 1.4 metres tall.

That means this ancient penguin would have been 60 per cent bigger than the emperor penguin, the largest living penguin species today.

Another reason why it was named the long-legged penguin is because a few million years later, similar penguins appeared, but with chunky legs. According to Ksepka, the slender legs studied on the fossil are most likely a primitive feature.

Speaking to As It Happens in 2006, Chris Templer said that he was leading a group of young people from a summer camp run by a local natural history club when the kids stumbled upon the fossil.

"We're just walking across a reef at low tide. And somebody called out to me that they'd found some bones, and would I investigate? And I came across them, took one look at them, and I got a big shock."

Co-author Daniel Ksepka is a paleontologist and curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. Beside him is a different fossil penguin, mounted for an upcoming exhibit. (Submitted by Daniel Ksepka)

The giant penguin would have roamed around the northern parts of the island when the sea level was much higher than it is today.

"That's one of the reasons New Zealand has a great fossil record of marine animals," he said. "Penguins or sea lions or whales that died in this area, they could have ended up on the bottom of the sea floor. But over time, those rocks became exposed at the surface and now we can actually see them. And in this case, it was almost transitional because the fossil was found at the tide line."

There were no sea lions around the island at that time, which the paleontologist thinks could have given penguins the opportunity to be the "big animal" that moved around freely.

"You can imagine when they were feeding their young especially, they probably really packed on the pounds," Ksepka said.

After studying the bones found by children at a summer camp back in 2006, paleontologists have determined a brand new species of giant penguins. Pictured above: A) Line drawing of the discovery; B) Photo of the fossil; C) Size comparison between the Kairuku waewaeroa and an emperor penguin. (Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology)

Various other species of penguins, in different shapes and sizes, existed 20 to 30 million years ago, and this discovery is helping scientists learn more about their evolution.

As for the Kairuku waewaeroa fossil, it is now on display in the Waikato Museum. "There's so many fossils in museums and in research papers that were actually found by people who were just out on a fossil collecting trip for fun," Ksepka said.

"I can't overstate how important amateur fossil collectors can be in the field of paleontology." 

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Daniel Ksepka produced by Sarah Jackson.



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