‘Human-sized Penguin’ Lived in New Zealand

By Doug Williams
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Credit: Canterbury Museum
Credit: Canterbury Museum
 
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If one wanted to observe unusual wildlife either today or sixty million years ago, New Zealand is and was the place to go.

 

If visiting in the Paleocene times (fifty-six to sixty-six million years ago) some very large species would have been observed. Amateur paleontologist Leigh Love recently discovered a leg bone in the Waipara Greensand fossil bed in Canterbury, New Zealand which proves the existence of a newly known type of penguin that lived about sixty million years ago, and its appearance was quite daunting.

According to Science Alert, the penguin Crossvallia waiparensis, as it has been named, stood just over five feet tall and weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds.

 

Although that is gigantic compared to the penguins we find at zoos, it wasn’t the largest ever found. Also discovered in the past few years are Kumimanu biceae, a penguin that was over five and a half feet tall and weighed well over two hundred pounds and the largest, the two hundred and fifty three pound Palaeeudyptes klekowskii, which stood almost seven feet tall.


Most people find penguins comical, especially when they walk, but seven foot tall penguins are the stuff of nightmares. According to Daniel Ksepka, a curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut  “In general, the larger an animal gets, the more efficient they become at conserving body heat (very important in penguins) and diving deeper and for longer periods of time. Large size also opens up new prey options and protects them from smaller predators.”

There are currently eighteen species of Sphenisciformes, the scientific name for penguins, found mostly in the southern hemisphere in or near Antarctica and New Zealand.

It is believed the area was warmer when the ancient birds walked the earth and Antarctica and New Zealand were closer together and both forested. There are no penguin species native to the Northern Hemisphere.

Paleontologists believe penguins share a common ancestor with the albatross, the shearwater, and petrels according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The rise in sea mammals such as seals and whales probably caused more competition for feeding grounds and may be the reason penguins evolved into smaller birds.


The largest and smallest penguin species alive today are the emperor penguin, standing about just over four feet and weighing about fifty pounds and the small blue korora which stands about fourteen inches tall and weighs about three pounds as an adult; coincidentally, both are found in New Zealand.

The emperor can live up to twenty years while the korora lives about six years. According to a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution study in January 2009, the emperor penguins are approaching threatened status due to climate change.

British Antarctic Survey tells us that penguins evolved from flying birds into twenty-five separate species, some of which have become extinct.

The species that survived cannot fly but have become proficient at diving and swimming with seventy-five percent of their lives spent in the water except during the three to four week moulting season when they lose old feathers due to new growth.

Penguins can swim up to about six miles per hour and usually dive about thirty feet, though on some occasions, dives of just over eight hundred feet have been noted with electronic dive recorders. A particular female emperor once dived to almost two thousand feet.

Breeding pairs are estimated at about twenty million which are found along the coast, and during extreme cold they gather together. The juveniles are kept in the center where it is the warmest.

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The Canterbury Museum will host a display of the newly found penguin bones as well as other giant species later this year.

 
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