Human-sized penguins once stalked New Zealand


Fossils indicate giant penguins evolved multiple times. Andrew Masterson reports.


The Emperor is the tallest penguin alive today, but pales in comparison to its ancestors.
The Emperor is the tallest penguin alive today, but pales in comparison to its ancestors.
Paul Souders/Getty Images

Some 60 million years ago, a penguin as tall as Kanye West walked the shores of New Zealand.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a team led by Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, reports the discovery of the bird.

Named formally as Kumimanu biceae, the bird is not without rivals for the title of largest penguin to ever waddle across the earth, but it has to be considered the latest front-runner. It is also arguably the oldest giant penguin ever discovered – and as such potentially clears up an evolutionary mystery.

The new species was identified from a partial skeleton unearthed at Hampden Beach in New Zealand’s Otago region.

The fossilised bones date to between 60 and 55 million years ago. Included among them is a 161 millimetre-long femur, which permitted Mayr and his colleagues to estimate that the bird weighed about 101 kilograms and stood 1.77 metres tall (the same height as Mr West, or Rihanna if you’d prefer).

A fossil penguin is classified as giant if it is larger than the tallest current living species, the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Several other species have been documented over the years, identified from fossils found in New Zealand, Antarctica, and Peru.

They include Kairuku grebneff, Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, and Palaeeudyptes klekowskii. This last is perhaps the only other real contender to be considered the biggest penguin ever. It has been reliably estimated to stand 1.4 metres tall, but Mayr and colleagues note that recently described bone fragments may indicate an individual two metres tall – raising the possibility that there once existed a penguin as tall as Stephen Fry.

Mayr and his colleagues echo the standard view that gigantism among penguins emerged comparatively rapidly after the birds’ common ancestors lost the ability to fly and became diving hunters.

Although widely distributed and falling into different genera, all the giant penguins are members of the same group, or clade, leading some in the field to suggest that huge size was a trait that evolved just once.

The new bird, however, falls outside the clade. It therefore grew large independently of all other so far discovered species, indicating that gigantism evolved more than once.

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
  1. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01959-6
  2. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01959-6
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