27 February 2017

Giant penguin fossil shows penguins may have lived with dinosaurs

NEW ZEALAND – The recent discovery of an approximately 61-million-year-old giant penguin fossil has lead scientists to suggest that penguin evolution started much earlier than previously thought – probably during the age of dinosaurs.

The fossil and its implications are described by Dr Gerald Mayr from Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany and colleagues from Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the journal The Science of Nature.

The new find dates back to the Paleocene era and is one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world. The giant penguin had a body length of around 150 centimetres. The bones differ significantly from those of other discoveries of the same age and indicate that the diversity of Paleocene penguins was higher than previously assumed. The scientists therefore suggest that penguin evolution may have started as early as during the age of dinosaurs.

The bones were discovered in one of the fossil sites along the Waipara River in New Zealand’s Canterbury region. These sites are well known for their avian fossils, which were embedded in marine sand a mere 4 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. The skeletons of Waimanu, the oldest known penguin to date, were also found in this area.

“What sets this [newly described] fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history,” said Dr Mayr.

“The leg bones we examined show that during its lifetime, the newly described penguin was significantly larger than its already described relatives. Moreover, it belongs to a species that is more closely related to penguins from later time periods.”

According to the researchers, the newly described penguin's body length of around 150 centimetres means it was almost as big as Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, the largest known fossil penguin. That penguin lived in Antarctica around 45 to 33 million years ago, so is much younger in geological terms.

Dr Mayr said, “This shows that penguins reached an enormous size quite early in their evolutionary history, around 60 million years ago.”

The scientists also assume that the newly discovered penguin species differed from their more primitive relatives in the genus Waimanu in how they moved. The large penguins presumably already moved with the upright, waddling gait characteristic of today’s penguins.

“The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed,” said Dr Mayr.

“In turn, this diversity indicates that the first representatives of penguins already arose during the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago.”

Journal citation
Mayr, G., De Pietri, V.L. & Scofield, R.P. (2017). A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world’s oldest penguinsThe Science of Nature, 104(3-4). doi 10.1007/s00114-017-1441-0

Source
The oldest fossil giant penguin – Penguins diversified earlier than previously assumed [news release], Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, 23 February 2017, AlphaGalileo 

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