In the summer of 2006 a group of children kayaked through the port of Kawhia (North Island, New Zealand) until they reached a point inaccessible by road to look for fossils of urchins, as part of the activities of a children’s camp. Once there, some of the little ones found something different from what they had seen. “There were dark orange shapes in the rock, like rusty metal. One of the parents leaned over and blew out the dust and sand so that we could better distinguish its shape. We still didn’t know what it was about, but it was much larger than any other fossil we had found before, ”explains Esther Dale, who was 15 years old at the time and is one of those girls who came across this discovery. Massey University has confirmed that it is a fossil of a giant penguin in a investigation published in the magazine Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. This animal has received the name of Foot diver and has a height that reaches 1.38 meters. The antiquity has been estimated between 27.3 and 34.6 million years.
This penguin, compared to its close relatives, Waterfighter and Kairuku grebneffi, has significantly longer legs. This characteristic is what has given the species its name, since waewaeroa means long legs, as explained Daniel thomas, Professor of Zoology at Massey University in New Zealand and lead author of the study. Despite the outstanding height of this animal, other ancient species are also known, such as Kumimanu biceae, which are even 10 centimeters taller. This question raises other debates for researchers such as possible reasons for the “diversity of body sizes within these giant penguins,” Thomas deepens.
Another distinctive feature of this new species is that it has a slightly more rounded elbow. Despite the fact that the skull was not preserved, the researchers defend the hypothesis that the animal could have a long, lance-shaped beak, as in other giant penguins. To classify this bird, the shapes and bone lengths of other fossils and more modern species were compared. Most of the time 3D scans have been used for this.
In this investigation the place of the find is especially important. Historically, the South Island of New Zealand (Te Waipounamu) is one of the most productive regions for penguin fossils. The North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui), however, has for many years been limited to a few fragmentary specimens. Regarding regional importance, the researcher points out that this is a demonstration that the birds and other animals in the environment are descendants of lineages “that go back to very ancient times” and that they should act as guardian (guardians) of these descendants in order to continue this lineage in the future.
a study published in 2020 confirms, through genomes, that the origin of the penguin group is between Australia and New Zealand. Andres Barbosa, researcher of the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN), maintains that this discovery reaffirms the study data: “It is good news that two sufficiently different methods coincide in these results and, therefore, there is practically no doubt that the origin of the penguins is in the area of New Zealand and that later, from there, different species were expanding ”. Another aspect that the scientist considers to be reinforced is that the size of the penguins of that time is “much higher” than those that exist today. The emperor penguin is the largest today and, according to Barbosa, it stands between 1.2 and 1.3 meters tall.
Climate hazards for penguins
Although there are currently around 18 species of these birds, more than 60 have been recorded since, at the end of the 19th century, Thomas Henry Huxley published the first report on a penguin fossil. Currently, of the almost two dozen that exist, four are in a vulnerable situation and five are in imminent danger of extinction, according to a list made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“In seabirds, in general, and in penguins, in particular, one of the main reasons for the general decline in populations of many species is undoubtedly climate change,” explains the Spanish scientist. In Antarctica, there are areas where penguins such as the Adelie or Chinstrap live that are suffering population reductions of around 60%, he details, adding that this is “connected to climate change”, since this phenomenon It has caused the reduction of krill, the main prey of these animals. The MNCN researcher predicts that if this phenomenon continues to advance and areas continue to thaw, it is “very likely” that new areas will emerge where new fossils can be found.