On a summer day in 2006, a group of schoolchildren from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club and their club leader were on a fossil-hunting field trip in Kawhia Harbour in New Zealand (Aotearoa). They spotted what they thought was a rusty propeller, but upon closer inspection realized their remarkable discovery was a large fossil encased in sandstone. The bird skeleton has now been identified as a new species of giant penguin that lived around 30 million years ago and stood 4.5 feet tall.
“It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today,” says Steffan Safey, who was 13 at the time he and his friends found the fossil, in a statement.
The team of paleontologists from Massey University and Bruce Museum used 3-D scanning techniques to create a digital model of the giant penguin. They compared their model to existing species from around the world and found it was a new species that existed between 27.3 and 34.6 million years ago when the region was submerged underwater. The giant penguin fossil, which is one of the most complete specimens to date, would have been roughly the size of a 10-year-old child.
Though the fossil shared a resemblance to others found in the region, it had much longer legs. The team decided to name the new species Kairuku waewaeroa, which means “long-legged” in the Maori language, reports Hannah Seo for Popular Science. The researchers published their results this month in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 meters tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive,” study author Daniel Thomas, a Massey University paleontologist, says in a statement. “It’s been a real privilege to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin. We know how important this fossil is to so many people.”
Penguin fossils date back almost as far as dinosaurs, and many of the oldest specimens are from New Zealand. By comparison, emperor penguins, which are the largest living penguins today, are around four feet tall. Giant penguins that lived millions of years ago were also thinner than modern penguins, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.
Part of the reason the ancient penguin grew so large could be because birds evolve into unusually large species when they're isolated in a habitat free of predators, reports Science Alert’s Tessa Koumoundouros. This new species gives paleontologists a more complete picture of the diversity of giant penguins and their evolutionary history.
"It was a rare privilege for the kids in our club to have the opportunity to discover and rescue this enormous fossil penguin,” says Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club. “We always encourage young people to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. There's plenty of cool stuff out there just waiting to be discovered."