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01/03/2017 - The Oldest Fossil Giant Penguin

Frankfurt, 23.02.2017. Together with colleagues from New Zealand, Senckenberg scientist Dr. Gerald Mayr described a recently discovered fossil of a giant penguin with a body length of around 150 centimeters. The new find dates back to the Paleocene era and, with an age of approx. 61 million years, 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. In their study, published today in the Springer scientific journal “The Science of Nature,” the team of scientists therefore postulates that the evolution of penguins started much earlier than previously thought, probably already during the age of dinosaurs.

The Waipara giant penguin compared to an Emperor Penguin (the largest extant penguin species) and a human. © Senckenberg
The Waipara giant penguin compared
to an Emperor Penguin (the largest extant
penguin species) and a human. © Senckenberg

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 4 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,” explains Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt.

The foot bones of the new giant penguin (left), compared to those of an Emperor Penguin, the largest living penguin species (right). © Senckenberg
The foot bones of the new giant penguin
(left), compared to those of an Emperor
Penguin, the largest living penguin
species (right). © Senckenberg

Together with colleagues from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, Mayr now described a newly discovered penguin fossil from the famous fossil site. “What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history,” explains the ornithologist from Frankfurt, and he continues, “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.”

The foot bones of the new giant penguin (left), compared to those of Waimanu manneringi from the same fossil site (center) and an Emperor Penguin, the largest living penguin species (right).  © Senckenberg
The foot bones of the new giant penguin (left),
compared to those of Waimanu manneringi
from the same fossil site (center) and an
Emperor Penguin, the largest living
penguin species (right). © Senckenberg

According to the researchers, the newly described penguin lived about 61 million years ago and reached a body length of approx. 150 centimeters – 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,” adds Mayr. 

In addition, the team of scientists from New Zealand and Germany assumes 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.

An artists impression of the giant penguin Waimanu on a beach. So far, only remains of this very primitive penguin were known from the fossil site in New Zealand. © Chris Gaskin and Geology Museum University of Otago.
An artists impression of the giant penguin
Waimanu on a beach. So far, only remains
of this very primitive penguin were known
from the fossil site in New Zealand.
© Chris Gaskin and Geology
Museum University of Otago.

 

“The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed,” says Mayr, and he adds, “In turn, this diversity indicates that the first representatives of penguins already arose during the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago.”

Contact

Dr. Gerald Mayr
Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt Section Ornithology
Phone: 069- 7542 1348
Gerald.Mayr@senckenberg.de

 Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Phone 069- 7542 1434
pressestelle@senckenberg.de


Publication: Mayr, S. et al. (2017). A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world’s oldest penguins, The Science of Nature. DOI 10.1007/s00114-017-1441-0


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To study and understand nature with its unlimited diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – that has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for almost 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s primary tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de

200 years of Senckenberg! 2017 marks Senckenberg’s anniversary year. For 200 years, the society, which was founded in 1817, has dedicated itself to nature research with curiosity, passion and involvement. Senckenberg will celebrate its 200-year success story with a colorful program consisting of numerous events, specially designed exhibitions and a grand museum party in the fall. Of course, the program also involves the presentation of current research and future projects. Additional information can be found at: www.200jahresenckenberg.de.

 

 

Press contact

Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Alexandra Donecker
Tel.: 069 7542-1561
Mobil: 0152-0923 1133

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Email: pressestelle@senckenberg.de

Senckenberg
Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum
Senckenberganlage 25
60325 Frankfurt

 

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