Fossil bones from two newly classified penguin species have been discovered in New Zealand, one of which is estimated to be the largest penguin ever to exist, weighing more than 340 pounds and being more than three times the size of the largest extant penguin.
The discovery was revealed in the Journal of Paleontology by an international team that included academics from the University of Cambridge. Alan Tennyson of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa discovered the fossils between 2016 and 2017 in 57 million-year-old beach boulders in North Otago, New Zealand’s South Island.
Al Manning then extracted the fossils from the stones. They were discovered between 59.5 and 55.5 million years ago, roughly five to ten million years after the end-Cretaceous extinction that resulted in the demise of non-avian dinosaurs.
The scientists created computerized reconstructions of the bones using laser scanners and compared them to other prehistoric species, flying diving birds like auks, and present penguins. The team analyzed hundreds of contemporary penguin bones and calculated a regression using flipper bone dimensions to predict weight to estimate the size of the new species.
“Fossils provide us with evidence of the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is truly surprising,” said co-author Dr Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Many early fossil penguins attained enormous sizes, easily dwarfing the largest penguins alive today. Our new species, Kumimanu fordycei, is the largest fossil penguin ever discovered—at approximately 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than [basketball player] Shaquille O’Neal at the peak of his dominance!”
The new species was named Kumimanu fordycei after Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, Professor Emeritus at the University of Otago. “Ewan Fordyce is a legend in our area, but he is also one of the most giving instructors I have ever known,” stated Dr. Daniel Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. “We would not have known that many classic fossil species existed without Ewan’s field program, thus it is only fitting that he has his own penguin namesake.”