Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:27 am
Fossil hunters in New Zealand have discovered an ancient giant penguin that stood as tall as a person.
The newly discovered penguin, named Kumimanu biceae, was found in sediment dating back 60-55 million years in an area north of Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island.
However this ancient species, one of the oldest penguins ever found, would have lived in conditions far different to what we see today, with tectonic movements yet to form anything that we would identify as the islands and the climate thought to be more tropical.
But what makes Kumimanu remarkable is its towering height, standing over 1.7 metres tall, and weighing in at around 100 kilograms. Compared to an average human male the penguin would have stood eye -to-eye and it would have dwarfed the largest penguins alive today, the emperor penguin, which is only 1.2 metres tall.
Compared to the Penguin’s traditional foe, Batman, it would have been just shorter.
When the fossils arrived at the laboratory, one of the challenges facing the researchers was the extremely hard rock encasing them which had to be removed.
What they found inside were a range of partial bones including from limbs which were used to calculate the penguin’s size.
The researchers admit that determining the size of extinct penguins from fossils is not an easy task, and that these animals may have had different dimensions compared to other penguin species.
However, the fact that it was exceptionally large is obvious from the major bones, which are significantly larger than other penguin species found before. In fact the only challenger to the Kumimanu’s size was a two-metre species discovered in Antarctica in 2014. Unfortunately however, there was no chance of an ancient giant-penguin showdown between the two species, with over 20 million years separating them.
The age of the Kumimanu fossils came as a surprise to the researchers. At its oldest age estimate, 60 million years, the penguin would have been alive only six million years after the cretaceous extinction event – the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs and three quarters of all life on the planet.
In that time the penguins evolved from flying birds to be accomplished swimmers, and once they were land locked their body size started increasing to the size of Kumimanu.
The larger bodies gave them more chance to survive and breed, and may have given them an advantage in competition for suitable breeding grounds.
“Giant penguins developed shortly after the mass extinction near the end of the Cretaceous, approx. 66 million years ago. It is possible that the disappearance of large marine reptiles enabled the penguins to explore new ecological niches,” said lead researcher Gerald Mayr from the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt.
From this first to the last, giant penguin species existed until around 20 million years ago, when the emergence of toothed whales and seals began putting pressure on their survival. The exact reason for their extinction is not known, however they may have struggled to compete with the marine mammals for food, or been food themselves.
And the name Kumimanu? The researchers combined the Maori words kumi, a large mythological monster, and manu, meaning bird. Bird monster. Sounds fitting.
The research was published in Nature Communications
Images courtesy of G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute