Penguins are iconic birds for the Antarctic. However, more than half of all species have always lived outside of the Antarctic boundaries for millions of years. Thus, fossils of these special birds are found in many un-penguin-like places like Australia, Chile or New Zealand. Here, scientists have unearthed another previously unknown early penguin species, Kumimanu, Maori for “monster bird”.

The largest modern penguin species are emperor penguins with sizes between 110 and 130 cm and 36 kg. Yet, they are dwarves in comparison to Kumimanu, which was up to 165 cm and weighted almost 100 kg. Credit: Michael Wenger
The largest modern penguin species are emperor penguins with sizes between 110 and 130 cm and 36 kg. Yet, they are dwarves in comparison to Kumimanu, which was up to 165 cm and weighted almost 100 kg. Credit: Michael Wenger

The fossilised remains of a giant penguin were found in a boulder in Otago, New Zealand. Scientists gave it the Maori name of Kumimanu, meaning “monster bird”. According to their estimate, the penguin was probably 1.65m tall and likely to have weighed around 100 kilograms. Te Papa curator Alan Tennyson said the boulder containing the bones was found on an Otago beach in 2004. "The beach was a known site for bird fossils, but only very fragmentary pieces," he said. "This particular rock showed some bone on the outside surface so I picked it up and brought it back to work." However, there were no specialised staff to extract the fossilised remains and it "sat on a shelf" until 2015 when preparator Al Mannering began work. "Painstaking extraction work slowly revealed that the rock contained a multitude of jumbled bones of a colossal penguin. We found flipper, body and leg bones and they are truly huge." The partial skeleton dates back to the late Paleocene of New Zealand.

The remains of the giant penguin clearly showed the enormous size of the animal. Around 165 cm in length and 100 kg weight made Kumimanu a true monster bird. It lived approximately 55 – 60 million years ago. Credit Gerald Mayr, Te Papa
The remains of the giant penguin clearly showed the enormous size of the animal. Around 165 cm in length and 100 kg weight made Kumimanu a true monster bird. It lived approximately 55 – 60 million years ago. Credit Gerald Mayr, Te Papa

Mr Tennyson said the discovery was of huge global significance. "A massive penguin is impressive but the fact that it's so old is important because it's in rocks that are 55-60 million years old. This fossil shows massive penguins were there right from the start when penguins first evolved - and that wasn't really known before now. The period was just after the demise of the dinosaurs and "right at the dawn of penguin evolution. There's probably a relationship here, so the large animals like dinosaurs, non-avian dinosaurs and marine predators, all died out at that astroid impact about 66 millions years ago. That probably opened up empty niches which allowed other things to grow large and fill them like this penguin." Mr Tennyson said giant penguins were thought to be the norm during much of the history of the birds, between 60 million and 20 million years ago until marine mammals evolved. "At the time of the giant penguin there were no whales or seals, but by the time 20 million years came around whales and seals were really diversifying, so we think maybe they ate the giant penguins or out-competed them." Mr Tennyson said the discovery was a career highlight. "This is definitely one of the most exciting fossils that I've ever found. When we found it, we didn't know what it was, because it was completely encased in rock. But as soon as the extraction began, we realised that is was the remains of an enormous bird."

The bones of the penguin fossil (black) in comparison to an emperor penguin (pale) show the enormous size of the fossil. Clockwise from top left: tibiotarsi, humeri, vertebrae, coracoids. Credit: Jean- Claude Stahl, Te Papa
The bones of the penguin fossil (black) in comparison to an emperor penguin (pale) show the enormous size of the fossil. Clockwise from top left: tibiotarsi, humeri, vertebrae, coracoids. Credit: Jean- Claude Stahl, Te Papa

Source: Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, Radio New Zealand