Wednesday, 17 January, 2018

Giant Penguin? Fossils Show They Were as Tall as Humans

Ancient giant penguin Fossil hunters find bones of human-sized penguin on New Zealand beach
Rita Gibson | 13 December, 2017, 12:04

Mayr and his team discovered the fossil in the Otago region on New Zealand's South Island, which was once a mecca for giant birds. Though other giant ancient penguins have been discovered before, this is one of the oldest.

An ancient penguin which lived 60 million years ago was far more intimidating than today's charismatic tuxedoed birds. What spelled the end is unclear, but the big birds may have struggled to compete with marine mammals for food, or may have become the meal of choice for the new predators. The bird's arrival, the second ever recorded according to New Zealand's Department of Conservation, has caught the public's attention as Emperor Penguins usually live in Antarctica, more than 3,000 Km (1,864 miles) away. It has been reliably estimated to stand 1.4 metres tall, but Mayr and colleagues note that recently described bone fragments may indicate an individual two metres tall - raising the possibility that there once existed a penguin as tall as Stephen Fry.

Giant penguins aren't exactly new to science. That's still quite a big penguin.

Extraction on the boulder didn't start until 2015 - but once work began, the researchers realised they had found the bones of a bird.

The partly prepared skeleton of the Paleocene giant penguin Kumimanu biceae. The massive penguin would have stood at around 5 feet, 8 inches tall, toppling today's largest penguin, the emperor penguin, which is around 1.5 feet shorter.

Penguins evolved from flying birds tens of millions of years ago, but lost the ability to get airborne and became accomplished swimmers instead. According to the study, the penguins could have been filling "ecological niches left vacant after the extinction of large predatory marine reptiles".

Ancient giant penguin bones

"In penguins, a size increase may have also constituted a selective advantage in competition for suitable breeding grounds", the authors, led by Gerald Mayr, curator and paleontologist of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, wrote. Whether Kumimanu biceae is the tallest penguin ever is up for debate, but there's no doubt that it was a seriously imposing beast.

Rather than the usual black-and-white colouring, the ancient penguin was probably brownish and had a longer beak than its modern-day cousins. Credit: G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.

'Kumimanu biceae is larger than all other fossil penguins that have substantial skeletal portions preserved'.

Scientific reference: Gerald Mayr et al.

Although widely distributed and falling into different genera, all the giant penguins are members of the same group, or clade, leading some in the field to suggest that huge size was a trait that evolved just once.

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