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This ‘Extinct’ Penguin Likely Never Existed in the First Place

DNA analysis helps untangle the species behind a jumble of bone fragments

The fossil was found to actually comprise bones of three living penguin species, including the Snares crested penguin. (CMH Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
smithsonian.com

A penguin species thought to be extinct turns out to have never existed at all, new research shows.

Discovered off the coast of Tasmania in 1983, the bones of the "Hunter Island penguin" were thought to represent the last remnants of a penguin unknown to science living some 800 years ago, reports Brooks Hays for UPI. But scientists in recent years have questioned whether the bones really are a new species, or just fragments of others.

Now, a new study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society seeks to settle that debate with the power of DNA, reports Kate Horowitz for Mental FlossUsing advanced technology to extract DNA from relatively old and degraded bones, the researchers were able to compare the genetic code from the four bones to a modern DNA database.

It turns out that the four bones of the purported new species are actually fragments from three living penguin species: Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki, Snares crested penguin and the fairy penguin. The three species all likely lived on the island at some point, reports Hays, leaving their bones behind when they died.

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be," Tess Cole, a zoology researcher at New Zealand's Otago University and researcher of the new study, said in a statement. "Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

DNA analysis has gained increasing use in recent years to aid in the identification and classification of species, leading many museums to reclassify old specimens. The technology is also in many cases changing the definition of what it means to be a species, as the ever increasing precision of modern tests blurs the lines between organisms once seen as separate.

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