While scouring the coastal rocks of New Zealand’s South Island, a team of international scientists came across a neat find: fossilized evidence of two new species of penguins that roamed (or teetered) the Earth more than 50 million years ago.
But most importantly, one of the penguins discovered, called Kumimanu fordycei, is possibly the largest ever to have lived. A co-author of a study on the discovery published Wednesday in the Journal of Paleontology had a pretty convincing way of putting it.
“At approximately 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than [basketball player] Shaquille O’Neal at the height of his dominance!” Daniel Field of the University of Cambridge said in a statement. By comparison, emperor penguins, also known as the largest penguins in existence, weigh a maximum of 100 pounds (45 kilograms), according to I a male ostrich, the largest living bird, can weigh up to about 290 pounds.
As for the height of this ancient (and possibly diving) penguin, the study’s first author, Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, tweeted an image of what he called the team’s “best guess.” It appears to be the size of a human (if not larger), but luckily it looks much smaller than the monstrous penguin predicted to inhabit the post-human Earth by paleontologist Dougal Dixon in 1981. Dixon envisioned a 12-meter ( almost 40 feet) hippopotamus. ike
The other species, called Petradyptes stonehousei, accounted for five of the nine specimens found, but was probably only slightly larger than a modern emperor penguin, the team said. It weighed about 110 pounds (50 kilograms).
Together, the two new species confirmed for scientists that penguins got really big in their early evolutionary history, and the discovery sheds light on how the fins of these flightless birds have changed over time.
“Fossils provide us with evidence about the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is really surprising,” Field said. “Many early fossil penguins reached enormous sizes, easily surpassing the largest living penguins today.”
Mega Penguin Analysis
Targeting an iconic feature of penguins, the flippers, the team used techniques such as laser scanning and environmental analysis to assess different aspects of the two extreme species.
First, the team used laser scanners to create digital models of the bones and compare them to other fossil species such as the emperor penguin. That’s how researchers began to extrapolate how big prehistoric birds probably were. But some information was also gleaned by examining the stones in which all the specimens—fin bones and muscle attachment points—were found, to begin with.
The rocks themselves have been found to be about 57 million years old, and the fossil species are thought to have lived between 59.5 million and 55.5 million years ago.
This timeline falls within the late Paleocene epoch, and specifically, it is approximately 5 million to 10 million years after the end-Cretaceous extinction, when the asteroid. In a way, that means the giant penguin may have had more peace than you’d expect for an ancient animal — undisturbed on a more or less dino-free Earth.
“Kumimanu fordycei would have been an amazing sight on the beaches of New Zealand 57 million years ago, and the combination of its large size and the incomplete nature of its fossil remains makes it one of the most intriguing fossil birds ever discovered,” Field said.
And if you’re wondering if the lifestyle of a massive penguin differs from the daily rituals of the cute little penguins we’re used to, the answer is probably yes.
For example, the researchers explain, a larger penguin could catch larger prey, be better at maintaining its body temperature in cold waters, and perhaps be able to migrate around the world and establish residences outside of its home town.
Many ancient animals appear to have been significantly larger than their modern ancestors, such as dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and even this. Some experts suggest that this is due to environmental factors such as higher oxygen content in the air. Others think it could be due to efficient digestion of food, as the penguin discovery team hinted at.
“Large, warm-blooded marine animals living today can dive to great depths. This raises questions about whether Kumimanu fordycei had an ecology that penguins do not have today, being able to reach deeper waters and find food unavailable to living penguins,” said Daniel Thomas of Massey University and co-author of the study in a statement.
The recently discovered giant species, called Kumimanu fordycei, is named after Ewan Fordyce, a professor emeritus at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “Without Ewan’s field program, we wouldn’t even know that many iconic fossil species exist, so it’s only right that he has his own penguin namesake,” Ksepka said in a statement.
The smaller find, Petradyptes stonehousei, has a much more literal name. Derived from the Greek words “petra” for rock and “dyptes” for diver. Stonehouse, however, honors the late Bernard Stonehouse, whom the publication calls the first person to observe the full breeding cycle of the emperor penguin.