Searching the beach rocks of New Zealand’s South Island, a group of international scientists stumbled across an exquisite find: fossil evidence of two new species of penguins roaming (or waddling) the earth more than 50 million years ago.
But most importantly, one of the penguins, called Kumimanu fordycei, is probably the largest that has ever lived. A co-author of a study on the discovery, published Wednesday in the Journal of Paleontology, had a pretty compelling way of putting it.
“At about 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than (basketball player) Shaquille O’Neal at the height of his dominance!” Cambridge University’s Daniel Field said in a statement. For comparison, emperor penguins, also known as the largest living penguins, weigh a maximum of 100 pounds (45 kilograms), according to a press release. And a male ostrich, the largest living bird today, can weigh up to 290 pounds.
Regarding the size of this ancient (and perhaps submerging) penguin, the study’s first author, Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, tweeted a picture of what he calls the team’s “best guess”. It appears to be about the size of a human (if not larger), but thankfully it appears to be much smaller than the monstrous penguin that paleontologist Dougal Dixon predicted in 1981 would inhabit Earth after humanity. Dixon envisioned a 12 meter (almost 40 foot) tall penguin. Monster. whoops
The other species, named Petradyptes stonehousei, made up five of the nine specimens discovered but was likely only slightly larger than a modern emperor penguin, the team said. It weighed about 110 pounds (50 kilograms).
Together, the two novel species have confirmed to scientists that penguins got really big early in their evolutionary history, and the discovery sheds light on how the fins of these flightless birds have changed over time.
“Fossils give us evidence of the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is really surprising,” Field said. “Many early fossil penguins reached enormous sizes, easily dwarfing the largest living penguins today.”
Mega Penguin Analysis
The team focused on an iconic penguin trait, fins, and used techniques like laser scanning and environmental analysis to assess various 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. So researchers began to extrapolate how large the prehistoric birds were likely to be. But some information was also gathered by looking at the boulders in which all the specimens – fin bones and muscle attachment points – were found.
The rocks themselves have been identified as being around 57 million years old, and the fossil species are believed to have lived between 59.5 million and 55.5 million years ago.
This timeline falls in the late Paleocene, and more specifically, it’s about 5 to 10 million years after the Cretaceous extinction when the asteroid Chicxulub wiped out the dinosaurs. In a way, this means the giant penguin may have had more rest than one would expect from an ancient animal — undisturbed on a more-or-less dino-free Earth.
“Kumimanu fordycei would have been an absolutely stunning sight on the beaches of New Zealand 57 million years ago, and the combination of its sheer size and the incomplete nature of its fossil remains makes it one of the most intriguing fossil birds ever found,” Field said .
And if you’re wondering if a giant penguin’s lifestyle is different from the daily rituals of cute little penguins we’re used to, the answer is probably yes.
For example, the researchers explain, a larger penguin might catch bigger prey, be better at maintaining body temperature in cold water, and might be able to migrate around the world and settle outside of its hometown.
Many ancient animals appear to have been significantly larger than their modern ancestors, such as dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and even these Dog-sized scorpion. Some experts believe that this is due to environmental factors such as higher levels of oxygen in the air. Others believe it was due to efficient feeding, as suggested by the penguin discovery team.
“Large, warm-blooded sea creatures alive today can dive to great depths. This raises the question of whether Kumimanu fordycei had an ecology that modern-day penguins do not have, being able to reach deeper waters and find food that is not accessible to living penguins,” said Daniel Thomas of Massey University and co-author of the study in a statement.
The newly unearthed giant species, called Kumimanu fordycei, was named in honor of Ewan Fordyce, a professor emeritus at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “Without Ewan’s field program, we wouldn’t even know that there are many iconic fossil species, 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. It derives from the Greek words “petra” for rock and “dyptes” for divers. Stonehousi does, however, honor the late Bernard Stonehouse, whom the publication credits as the first person to observe the entire breeding cycle of the emperor penguin.