11 February 2015

Scientists reveal rapid biological transition event for New Zealand penguins

NEW ZEALAND - An international research team led by scientists from the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology has documented one of the most rapid biological transition events ever found.

The team used carbon dating and ancient DNA analysis of archaeological penguin remains from coastal New Zealand to establish the timing of penguin extinction and colonisation events.

“Previous research has shown that at the time of human arrival, New Zealand was inhabited by the waitaha penguin,"said Dr Nic Rawlence, who carried out the study.

"Hunting and habitat change apparently caused the extinction of this unique mainland penguin, before the yellow-eyed penguin later arrived here from the subantarctic. Until now, we really had no idea when one species went extinct and the other colonised.”

The new dating study has shown that waitaha penguin went extinct around the same time as the giant flightless moa, within 200 years of Polynesian settlement of New Zealand, before 1500 AD.

Intriguingly, the yellow-eyed penguin then replaced the extinct penguin within just a few decades, in the early 1500s.

“This very rapid biological shift implies a substantial change in human pressure around this time. Interestingly, recent archaeological studies similarly suggest that the Maori population in southern New Zealand declined around 1500 AD, and coincided with a major dietary shift,” said Associate Professor Ian Smith, who was involved in the study.

“This unique combination of factors seems to have allowed yellow-eyed penguins to establish the mainland populations we see today,” said project leader Professor Jon Waters.

The team’s findings have been published this week in the leading international journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Scientists reveal rapid New Zealand penguin extinction and arrivals [press release], 10 February 2014, University of Otago

Quaternary Science Reviews citation
Rawlence, N. J., Perry, G. L. W., Smith, I. W. G., Scofielde, R. P., Tennyson, A. J. D., Matisoo-Smith, E. A. ... Waters, J. M. (2015). Radiocarbon-dating and ancient DNA reveal rapid replacement of extinct prehistoric penguins. Quaternary Science Reviews, 112, 59-65. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2015.01.011

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