Hunter Island penguin species never actually existed, study says

"This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be," said researcher Tess Cole.
By Brooks Hays  |  Aug. 16, 2017 at 10:54 AM
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Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Almost 35 years after the lost "Hunter Island" penguin was discovered, scientists have determined the species never actually existed.

New analysis suggests the specimen, unearthed on Tasmania's Hunter Island in 1983, is comprised of bones from three living penguin species.

The revelation was made possible by new techniques for extracting and analyzing ancient DNA samples. Scientists have previously questioned the scientific legitimacy of the Hunter Island penguin, but the latest DNA analysis confirmed the original mistake.

"In our study, we applied ancient DNA methods to genetically assess every bone that had ever been attributed to this mysterious penguin species -- a rare and remarkable opportunity," Tess Cole, a PhD candidate in the zoology department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said in a news release. "Using a short DNA barcode region we showed that it was actually a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera."

The misidentified bones belong to three penguin species: Fiordland crested penguin, Eudyptes pachyrhynchus; the Snares crested penguin, Eudyptes robustus; and the Australian little penguin or fairy penguin, Eudyptula novaehollandiae.

Both the Fiordland crested and Snares crested penguins are species endemic to New Zealand, which occasionally turn up on Tasmania. The Australian little penguin breeds on Tasmania.

"The presence of three species of penguins in Tasmania's archaeological record can be explained in light of what is now known about the distributions and movement patterns of these species within the Australasian region," Cole said. "This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be. Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case."

Cole and her colleagues published their analysis of the Hunter Island penguin remains this week in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

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