Two words come to mind when you think of a penguin – short and stout. Dan Ksepka, from North Carolina State University, is showing the world that this was not always so. Ksepka recently reconstructed an ancient penguin based on fossilized bones found in 1977 by University of Otago paleontologist Ewan Fordyce. The fossils belonged to a penguin called Kairuku grebneffi; its “first name” or genus means “the diver who returns with food” in Maori, a language native to New Zealand). Ksepka used the skeleton of a modern King Penguin to help reassemble the fossils into his interpretation of the prehistoric penguin. Unlike modern penguins, Kairuku had a slim body, a long thin beak, and extra-long flippers. According to the model, Kairuku stood at four-and-a-half feet tall, making it the largest of the five species known to have waddled the islands of New Zealand during the Oligocene Epoch (ca. 30 million years ago) and at least 2 inches taller than the tallest modern species, the Emperor Penguin, which is in comparison chubbier with a shorter head and beak. Another ancient penguin, Inkayacu paracasensis, described in 2010 from the Eocene Epoch of Peru, had a similarly elongated beak and also stood nearly 5 feet tall. Ksepka and his colleagues are continuing to study Kairuku’s fossils to learn more about the evolutionary history of penguins.
Find the original article, describing both Kairuku grebneffi and its cousin K. waitaki, in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.