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Ancient NZ Penguin as Big as a Human - Expert Reaction

Ancient NZ Penguin as Big as a Human - Expert Reaction

A fossil penguin discovered in New Zealand has been identified as a new species and it was so tall it was about the height of an adult man. The New Zealand and German researchers who identified the species - dubbed Kumimanu biceae - say it is about 60-55 million years old, which also makes it one of the oldest known penguin species.

The SMC asked Dr Nic Rawlence, Director, Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory, University of Otago, to comment on the discovery:

"This stunning new discovery of a truly giant fossil penguin Kumimanu, (around 100 kg and 177 cm in height), from north Otago is rewriting what we know of penguin evolution. With an age of around 55-60 million years old, (that's just 5-10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs and large predatory marine reptiles), Kumimanu shows that gigantism (larger than today’s Emperor Penguin) evolved very rapidly in penguin evolution, shortly after they became flightless. What’s the reason for the evolution of gigantism? Well, it may be penguins accepted a job vacancy in the ecosystem with the extinction of large predatory marine reptiles.

"Kumimanu is also millions of years older than the other giant penguins that have made New Zealand famous. Kumimanu is separated in the penguin family tree from other much younger giant penguins by several small penguins, indicating that true giants have evolved multiple times in penguin evolution - much like true giants have evolved multiple times in ratites (the bird family that includes the extinct moa and elephant bird, and the kiwi, emu, ostrich, cassowary and rhea we know today). It is likely that giant penguins, in general, went extinct with the radiation of whales and seals, (both giant marine predators), 20-30 million years ago.

"So why does New Zealand have all these ancient species – Leiopelma frogs, tuatara, and Kumimanu? Well, part of the story might be that Zealandia (the continent that New Zealand is part of) started to separate from the supercontinent Gondwana around 80 million years ago. On Zealandia, the ancestors of these ancient species could evolve in isolation, some obtaining truly gigantic sizes. On islands, birds can become true giants and in this case, this is just what may have happened with penguins 55-60 million years ago, of which Kumimanu is a perfect example."

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The Science Media Centre (NZ) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, evidence-based reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC (NZ) is an independent centre established by the Royal Society Te Apārangi with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees.

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