They were called Kairuku, Maori for “diver who returns with food,” and have scientists all a buzz this week as the first glimpses of the extinct giant penguin species from New Zealand was revealed in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The Kairuku, is said to have lived in the Oligocene period, around 26 million years ago and stood around 4 feet 2 inches tall according to an article in the Washington Post.
Sceintists from New Zealand and the United States have reconstructed a fossil skeleton of a Kairuku from multiple sets of fossils displaying its unique body shape compared to other known penguin species stated the Washington Post. The first Kairuku bones were discovered 35 years ago by Ewan Fordyce, a professor of geology at New Zealand’s University of Otago.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Fordyce told The Associated Press. “We’ve got enough from three key specimens to get a pretty reliable construction of its body size.”
Fordyce teamed up with Daniel Ksepka of North Carolina State University and former Otago students Tatsuro Ando and Craig Joins to reconstruct the findings and author the Journal article according to a Journal press release.
Ksepka says in the press release, “It is thrilling to see a completely new type of penguin turning up in the fossil record. Kairuku joins a cadre of extinct forms including the “proto-penguin” Waimanu, spear-billed penguins, and tiny divers. Each new discovery expands our picture of the incredibly diverse radiation of now-extinct penguins – now surpassing 50 species.”
According to the Washington Post the Kairuku would have towered over the emperor penguin, the largest modern penguin, by about a foot. It also would have weighed around 132 pounds about 50 percent more than the emperor.
The Washington Post states that when Kairuku was alive most of New Zealand was submerged beneath the ocean, making it a prime habitat for penguins.
The press release also states that modern penguins are known for living in the southern hemisphere and that New Zealand has the largest collection of modern penguin species, and the same is true of their fossil relatives. This recent find helps scientists sort out some of the incredible diversity in these early forms.
Ksepka says in the release, “New Zealand is a center of diversity for penguins today, and in the past Zealandia was even more of a penguin paradise. So far, 10 different species spanning a large range of shapes and sizes have been discovered in similar aged deposits. The warm, shallow seaways and isolated coastlines of the time would have been a perfect environment for feeding and nesting.”
As for how the largest penguins to date became extinct, Fordyce said there could be several reasons including climate change, the arrival of new predators, or increased competition for food from seals and other creatures according to the Washington Post article.