Tuesday 28 February 2012

The Giant Penguins Of New Zealand

An artist's impression of two Kairuku penguins on the prehistoric beaches
of New Zealand with a stranded Waipatia maerewhenua, an archaic
species of dolphin
The penguins' shape is iconic. They are flightless and have a black and white classic colour scheme, though a few species have brightly coloured crests. They can grow into a range of sizes: from barely 2 feet in height to over a metre. However some prehistoric species may have been larger. In 1977, Dr Ewan Fordyce, from the University of Otago, New Zealand, collected a series of mysterious bones.

These remained the subject of intense debate for many years until 2011, Dr Dan Ksepka, from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences colleague Dr Paul Brinkman travelled to New Zealand to help with the reconstruction of the giant penguin fossil. The new specimen was unlike any other fossil penguin from New Zealand. Its unique physique made reconstruction difficult.

The fossilised remains of the Kairuku penguin
Penguin sizes can be calculated quite accurately by extrapolating the length of the flippers. However this creature's physique would have provided an erroneous result, giving it a height of over two metres. Instead, they compared two sets of fossil remains with the skeleton of a king penguin. In the end they came up with a height of 132 centimetres. The creature had a slender body with long flippers, but short, thick legs and feet. Its unusual shape in comparison to other penguins led the researchers to identify it as a completely new species.

This 25 million year old penguin dubbed  Kairuku, a Maori word for 'diver who returns with food', is the tallest that has ever lived. 'The location was great for penguins in terms of both food and safety,' said Dr Kepska. What emerges is a more complete picture of these creatures during the Oligocene epoch. As the majority of New Zealand was underwater at that time, the penguins were protected from predators on isolated, rocky land masses, with a plentiful food supply.