New Zealand is the only part of the now sunken Zealandia that still protrudes from the sea. Researchers have now found fossils of a penguin species there that suggest: Millions of years ago, the ancestor of all tailcoats waddled across this eighth continent.
New Zealand seems to be a true penguin paradise. Three species of these fascinating creatures are native there all year round: the yellow-eyed penguin, the crested penguin and the pygmy penguin, the smallest penguin in the world. But the tailcoats were not always so mini in the southern hemisphere. About 60 million years ago, a giant penguin as big as a man is said to have lived in New Zealand.
No miracle thus that researchers of the Massey University encountered there now an age-old representative of the penguins. They discovered on the North Island of New Zealand about three million years old fossils of a previously unknown and unfortunately already extinct species. They named this representative of the crested penguins Eudyptes atatu. The scientists assume that it is a hitherto missing link between the prehistoric and the still living penguins. The research team wrote an article about their findings on the science portal phys.org.
Crested penguins have been around New Zealand for millions of years
A surprise! Because until now, this genus, which now lives in the isolated wilderness of Fiordland and Stewart Island, was thought to have been native to the South Pacific island region for just over 7000 years.
At the time, New Zealand was part of the continent Zealandia. It sank into the ocean about 50 to 35 million years ago – except for New Zealand. The prehistoric continent had an area of a good two million square kilometers and, according to the researchers, was probably home to all the penguins still living today.
The fossil finds – including skull and wing bones – have finally allowed researchers to establish a link between modern tailcoats and their ancestors. The eponymous word of the newly discovered species, E. atatu, comes from the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. It means dawn and is thought to refer to the beginning of our knowledge of the crested penguin genus.
Zoologists led by scientist Daniel Thomas compared the fossils they found with bones from crested penguins still alive today. They found that E. atatu looked quite similar to modern species. For example, it probably also had a yellow feather stripe over its eyes. But it probably had a slimmer beak, indicating that it fed differently. Today, the diet of crested penguins includes mainly small fish, krill, and crustaceans.
E. atatu may be either a direct ancestor or a closely related species of modern crested penguins. To find out more, the researchers compared the data of the species. Their conclusion: E. atatu is not an ancestor, but a sibling of today’s crested penguins. And from its ancestor, also living in Zealandia, all modern penguins are very likely descended.
Researchers believe that this ancestor – as mentioned at the beginning of this article – evolved about 60 million years ago, was the size of a human and weighed about 100 kilograms.
Depending on the season, up to 13 species of penguins live in New Zealand. This makes it the country with the most of these waddling birds. Not only that, but more than a third of all 80 native seabird species are found nowhere else in the world.