Back in 2006, children from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club went on a fossil-hunting field trip and stumbled across the bones of a giant fossil penguin. Little did they know that those bones belonged to an entirely new species.
Extinct giant penguin fossil was a new species
The fossilised penguin had to be cut out of the rock where it was found in Kawhia Harbour, in New Zealand (Aotearoa). It was dated to between 27–36.6 million years old, from a time when the region was underwater.
Now, researchers from Massey University in NZ have identified the bones as belonging to a 1.4-metre tall penguin – a new species.
“The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs, which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – Te reo Māori for ‘long legs’,” says Daniel Thomas, senior author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.
“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.”
Thomas says that it has been “a real privilege” to contribute to the study of this penguin.
“Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons. The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia (ancient Aotearoa) with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role. The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians].”
Read more: Clues to the evolution of modern penguins
The discovery also shows the power of citizen science and curiosity.
“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.”
The junior naturalists thrilled their find was a new species
The new research is especially impactful to the kids who found the bones back in 2006.
Steffan Safey, who was there for both the discovery and rescue missions, adds: “It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it’s a new species, even!
“The existence of giant penguins in New Zealand is scarcely known, so it’s really great to know that the community is continuing to study and learn more about them. Clearly the day spent cutting it out of the sandstone was well spent!”
Another one of the other junior naturalists – Esther Dale – went on to become a plant ecologist in Switzerland.
“I’m excited to see what we can learn from it about the evolution of penguins and life in New Zealand,” she says.
“It was definitely one of those slightly surreal things to look back on – absolute bucket list moment for me,” says another former junior naturalist, Alwyn Dale.
“[It’s] a real testament to all the parents and volunteers who gave their time and resources to make unique and formative memories for the club members.”
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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