Human-Sized Penguin Fossils Invite Look at Penguin Evolution

170-lb. penguin measures over five feet tall, dates back 55 million years

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A new species of penguin fossil has been discovered measuring over five feet tall, according to a report published in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology. The creature weighed an estimated 170 lbs. and was found in New Zealand, suggesting that penguins evolved greatly to resemble their modern incarnations.

3D model of 5 foot tall penguin in relation to human woman
Newly discovered fossil has furthered paleontologists’ understanding of penguin evolution. Photo by Canterbury Museum

The NBC News article states that the new species of penguin will be called the Crossvallia waiparensis and comes from the Paleocene Epoch, which ended more than 55 million years ago. Its fossilized remains will be on display first in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, then at the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Clearly, a penguin standing more than five feet tall is a far cry from today’s smaller, waddling, flightless birds the world knows and loves. So how did it happen?

Becoming Penguins

“Roughly 50 million to 100 million years ago, different species of flying birds—forbears of today’s albatrosses and petrels—slowly evolved into the flightless birds that became penguins,” Fen Montaigne, journalist for National Geographic, said.

“This evolution occurred for several reasons. These proto-penguins lived on islands in the Southern Hemisphere where they encountered no predators on land, and, thus, had no need to fly,” he said. “The oceans also were filled with food and so, slowly, over millions of years, natural selection favored a bird that could swim long distances, foraging for food and fattening up to the point where it could no longer take to the air.”

On the subject of natural selection, it’s impossible not to discuss the emperor penguin. “No animal or bird on Earth has evolved to live in a harsher environment,” Montaigne said. “The emperor breeds as far as 78 degrees South [and] it endures air temperatures of -60 degrees Fahrenheit, winds that reach 100 miles per hour, and sea temperatures just below freezing. It is protected by an inch-thick layer of fat and the densest feathers of any bird on the planet—about 100 per square inch.”

Penguin Country

Penguins are deeply rooted in the Southern Hemisphere, having never crossed to the Northern Hemisphere for several biological and evolutionary reasons. “One of the main reasons penguins have remained exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere is because the strong Equatorial Countercurrent, which flows east to west, acts as a natural migratory barrier to flightless birds,” Montaigne said.

He added that the current plays a second role in the localization of penguins. “No matter how far north the roughly 20 species of penguins may breed—and Galapagos penguins live at the equator—they are all connected to the cold waters of Antarctica. That’s because massive, frigid Antarctic currents flow deep underwater and emerge as the Humboldt Current off of western South America or the Benguela Current off of western Africa. Both of these currents carry upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water that provide food for these penguins found in warmer climes.”

It seems evolution has painted many species of penguins into a proverbial corner, isolating them primarily to the frigid Antarctic. However, they’ve evolved into the best-equipped birds to live there, with their ability to swim, their dense feathers, their layers of fat, and the behavioral traits they’ve picked up in the last 60 million years.

Fen Montaigne contributed to this article. A veteran journalist, author, and editor, Montaigne worked as a Moscow correspondent during the collapse of the Soviet Union, reported for National Geographic magazine from six continents, earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.