Researchers in New Zealand and Germany have determined that fossils found in North Canterbury, New Zealand, come from a species of human-sized penguin that lived during the Paleocene Epoch. Photo by Hans_Huijskes
Aug. 14 (UPI) -- New Zealand already claims an impressive lineup of extinct megafauna, including a recently discovered giant parrot. Now, thanks to paleontologists in New Zealand and Germany, the island nation's population of extinct giants includes a monster penguin.
With the addition of the newly discovered species, named Crossvallia waiparensis, to the megafauna lineup, New Zealand's giant parrot, giant eagle, giant burrowing bat and the famed moa all look diminutive by comparison.
Described this week in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, the new species stood roughly 5 feet and 3 inches tall and weighed nearly 180 pounds. The penguin lived during the Paleocene Epoch, between 66 and 56 million years ago.
Remains of the giant penguin were first discovered by amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love at the Waipara Greensand fossil site in North Canterbury, a central-eastern region on New Zealand's South Island. Love alerted experts at the Canterbury Museum to his discovery.
Museum curators worked with paleontologists at the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, to analyze the remains, ultimately determining that the massive leg bones belonged to a new extinct penguin species. Scientists concluded that new species is most closely related to Crossvallia unienwillia, another Paleocene species found in Antarctica.
Relationships between ancient species can help scientists better understand the movements and climates of Earth's continents.
"When the Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today -- Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates," Paul Scofield, senior curator at the Canterbury Museum, said in a news release.
Analysis suggests the new species used its feet more for swimming than for walking or standing. It's possible Crossvallia waiparensis had not yet adapted to standing upright like modern penguins.
"The fossils discovered there have made our understanding of penguin evolution a whole lot clearer," researcher Gerald Mayr said. "There's more to come, too -- more fossils which we think represent new species are still awaiting description."