Fossilised leg bones discovered in New Zealand indicate there were once human-sized penguins roaming the earth.
We’re not talking about a toddler-sized human here, either – we still have those kinds of penguins today. The newly discovered species, Crossvallia waiparensis, would have stood at 1.6 metres (5’2″) and weighed around 80kg (12st). That’s four times heavier and 40cm taller than the largest living penguin, the emperor penguin.
I can’t decide if it would have been adorable or terrifying. A human-sized penguin toy would probably be great to cuddle but I imagine I’d be pretty freaked out if one started waddling ferociously towards me.
The bones were discovered by amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love at the Waipara Greensand fossil site in North Canterbury, on New Zealand’s South Island, in 2018. They are believed be to from the Paleocene Epoch which took place between 66 and 56 million years ago.
Local fossil preparator Al Mannering readied them for study and helped describe them and a team from Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and Senckenberg natural history museum in Frankfurt analysed the bones before concluding they belonged to a previously unknown penguin species.
According to a recent release from the Canterbury Museum, researchers describe the findings in a paper published this week in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.
The recently discovered bones are indicative of a new species but the Crossvallia waiparensis is similar to another prehistoric giant penguin, known as Crossvallia unienwillia, which was identified from a fossilised partial skeleton found in the Cross Valley in Antarctica in 2000.
Dr Vanesa De Pietri, a natural history curator at Canterbury Museum, said the discovery served as further evidence for the large size of past penguins.
It further reinforces our theory that penguins attained a giant size very early in their evolution.
Someone bring it back, i want a giant pet penguin https://t.co/330tONCOqP
— Hannah✨ (@hannahsmelscar_) August 14, 2019
The leg bones of both Crossvallia penguins suggest their feet could have played a greater role in swimming than they do with modern penguins. Alternatively, the ancient the penguins might not yet have adapted to standing upright like the animals we see today.
Last year’s discovery was the fifth ancient penguin species described from fossils uncovered at the Waipara Greensand site, where a river cuts into a cliff of greensand.
Dr Gerald Mayr, from the Senckenberg Natural History Museum, believes there is still more to be discovered.
The fossils discovered there have made our understanding of penguin evolution a whole lot clearer. There’s more to come, too – more fossils which we think represent new species are still awaiting description.
The fossils of several giant species, including Crossvallia waiparensis, will be displayed in a new exhibition about prehistoric New Zealand at Canterbury Museum later this year.
The penguin is one of a number of extinct giant New Zealand birds, including the world’s largest parrot, an eagle with a three-metre wingspan and 3.6 metre-tall moa birds.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.