Tech & Science

Ancient, Giant Penguin Taller Than You Roamed New Zealand 60 Million Years Ago

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An Emperor Penguin stands on a beach on Kapiti coast June 20, 2011. The bird's arrival, the second ever recorded according to New Zealand's Department of Conservation, has caught the public's attention as Emperor Penguins usually live in Antarctica, more than 3,000 Km (1,864 miles) away. Reuters

Update | Ancient penguins from 55 million to 60 million years ago were as tall as an average human adult, according to fossilized bones found off the eastern coast of New Zealand's southern island.

The fossilized remains of the new species, Kumimanu biceae, were discovered in Hampden Beach in the Otago region of New Zealand. Though other giant ancient penguins have been discovered before, this is one of the oldest. The massive penguin would have stood at around 5 feet, 8 inches tall, toppling today's largest penguin, the emperor penguin, which is around 1.5 feet shorter. The bird doesn't just stand tall. It also likely weighed over 220 pounds, according to the study. 

Fig_1 The latest species of giant, prehistoric penguins was discovered on the coast of New Zealand. It could have been around the size of an average adult human. Gerald Mayr

The fossil findings were published in Nature Communications on Tuesday, which described K. biceae as further evidence that gigantism in penguins arose after the birds became divers and could no longer fly. Several post-Paleocene-era gigantic penguins, exceeding the size of the emperor penguin, have been documented. The latest species, K. biceae, lived during the late Paleocene era in New Zealand and was likely able to glide through the water at up to 22 miles an hour, according to the New York Times.

RTXN2Q8 Gentoo and king penguins swim in their enclosure at the Melbourne Aquarium May 25, 2009. Reuters

"In penguins, a size increase may have also constituted a selective advantage in competition for suitable breeding grounds," the authors, led by Gerald Mayr, curator and paleontologist of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, wrote. "A correlation with improved diving capabilities has likewise been discussed."

This skeleton—including its wings, spine, breast and leg bones—were discovered over a decade ago. The fossilized bones were so embedded into the rock that it has taken until now for scientists to be able to study the remains. The penguin was likely a brownish color with a long beak, reported The Guardian.

“It would most likely have been slimmer too and not so cute-looking,” Mayr told The Guardian. “It’s one of the tallest penguins that has ever been found.”

Mayr told The New York Times that the beak was like that of a stork, and “probably they speared their prey.” Their wings were likely able to bend further than the short and stiff wings of today’s penguins.

Back in 2014, fossilized bones of another large penguin were examined in New Zealand. Those bones were discovered decades prior in 1971, but remained untouched in a storage shed until a researcher found evidence of them in old research papers and requested to examine them.

Other giant penguins with sharp, heron-like beaks waddled around Peru 30 million years ago, reported Gizmodo. Another New Zealand and Antarctica species dating back 40 million years could have been tall enough to peck Michael Jordan in the face. The latest towering, ancient seabird is estimated to be one of the tallest, and makes up a new genus and species—forming a new branch of the ancient penguin evolutionary history.

This story was updated with an illustration provided by the author of the study.

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