Researchers from Germany and New Zealand worked together in a discovery that has rocked the world for ornithologists and paleontologists. Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Seckenburg Natural History Museum in Frankfort described a hitherto unknown fossil giant penguin species. The bones excavated by Mayr and collaborators indicate that the penguin stood over 5 and one-half feet (1.7 meters) tall in life and reached a body weight of over 200 pounds (100 kilos). Their study is published in “Nature Communications,” in which the researchers show that throughout geological history, “gigantism” was not a rare occurrence in early penguins and probably developed as a result of the birds’ flightlessness. It is the largest penguin found to date.

Described in taxonomic terms as Kumimanu biceae, the flightless toddling swimming bird has a name that is quite descriptive. In the Maori language of New Zealand, Kumi means “monster” and manu is the word for “bird.” Speaking of this extraordinary discovery of a man-sized bird, Dr. Mayr said, “We examined the wing and leg bones of this penguin and quickly realized that we were looking at a previously unknown species.” Mayr said, “The size of the bones indicates that this species stood over 1.7 meters tall and weighed more than 100 kilograms.”

The partly prepared skeleton of the Paleocene giant penguin 
Kumimanu biceae. The rectangles emphasize the humerus 
and a bone from the shoulder girdle (coracoid), which 
are shown separated from the original bone cluster.

The new discovery thus counts among the largest fossil penguin species, only surpassed in body size by a fossil species from Antarctica, which, however, is only known from very fragmented remains. New Zealand was also once home to the gigantic flightless Moa birds -- six species of which the two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae, reached about 3.6 meters (12 ft) in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 230 kg (510 lb). When Polynesians settled New Zealand around 1280 AD, the moa population was about 58,000. They soon began extinct because of predation by the settlers. 

The fossilized bones were discovered in the Otago region on New Zealand’s South Island. “Age datings reveal that the bird lived during the Late Paleocene, i.e., about 59 to 56 million years ago,” said Mayr, who added, “The fossils are therefore among the oldest known penguin remains, and it is remarkable that even these early forms reached such an enormous size.” 

The humerus (top) and a bone from the shoulder girdle 
(coracoid, bottom) of the Paleocene giant penguin 
Kumimanu biceae, compared to the corresponding 
bones of one of the largest fossil penguins known to date 
(Pachydyptes ponderosus from the Eocene in New Zealand) 
and those of an Emperor Penguin (Aptendodytes forsteri).

In the study, Mayr -- an ornithologist -- and his New Zealander colleagues were able to show that the discovery represents a rather archaic species, which is clearly differentiated from the giant penguins known to date from the geologically younger epochs of the Eocene and Oligocene. “Kumimanu shows that gigantism was not rare among early penguins, even at the earliest stage of their evolution,” adds Mayr.

The scientists assume that this gigantism developed as a result of the seabirds’ flightlessness. This raises the question why no penguin giants are alive today. The researchers theorize that giant penguins developed shortly after the mass extinction near the end of the Cretaceous age, which was approximately 66 million years ago. It is possible that the disappearance of large marine reptiles enabled the penguins to explore new ecological niches. However, with the subsequent appearance of other large marine predators such as seals and toothed whales, the penguins faced new competition and predation – which may have led to their extinction.

Gerald Mayr, R. Paul Scofield, Vanesa L. De Pietri & Alan J.D. Tennyson (2017): A Paleocene penguin from New Zealand substantiates multiple origins of gigantism in fossil Sphenisciformes. NATURE COMMUNICATIONS 8: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01959-6 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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