Scientists have discovered fossil of a giant penguin with a body length of around 150 centimetres, dating back to about 61 million years, a finding which shows that the flightless birds possibly lived alongside dinosaurs. The new find dates back to the Paleocene era and counts among the oldest penguin fossils in the world. 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.
Scientists from Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Germany postulate that the evolution of penguins started much earlier than previously thought, probably already during the age of dinosaurs. The fossil sites along the Waipara River in New Zealand’s Canterbury region are well known for their avian fossils, which were embedded in marine sand a mere four million years after the dinosaurs became extinct.
“Among the finds from these sites, the skeletons of Waimanu, the oldest known penguin to date, are of particular importance,” said Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. “What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history,” said 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,” he said.
The penguin lived about 61 million years ago and reached a body length of about 150 centimetres – making it almost as big as Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, the largest known fossil penguin, which lived in Antarctica around 45 to 33 million years ago, thus being much younger in geological terms. “This shows that penguins reached an enormous size quite early in their evolutionary history, around 60 million years ago,” said Mayr.
In addition, scientists assume that the newly discovered penguin species also differed from their more primitive relatives in the genus Waimanu in their mode of locomotion: The large penguins presumably already moved with the upright, waddling gait characteristic for today’s penguins. “The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed,” said 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,” he added. The study was published in the journal Science of Nature.