New species of Oligocene giant penguin discovered

A group of children discover strange fossils during a hike: it's the sensational discovery of a new species, the Oligocene giant penguin.

The Hamilton Junior Naturalistic Club, known as Junats, is an association founded in New Zealand back in 1962, open to all children between 10 and 18 years old with a passion for discovering and protecting the natural history of the New Zealand continent. The Young Naturalists Club meets every Friday evening at the Waikato Institute of Technology, in the Maori city of Kirikiriroa - in English Hamilton - and it is very recent news that the boys of the Club have even discovered, during an excursion, a new species of penguin never studied before.

The Unexpected Discovery

The Young Naturalists' Club, on a 2006 expedition led by fossil hunter Chris Templer, came across some peculiar fossils that immediately caught the attention of more experienced adults, and were therefore set aside pending further study.

Well, fifteen years later, researchers from Massey University in Palmerston North, along with technicians from Connecticut's Bruce Museum, have decided to take up the matter again.

The fossils found by the children during the hike in Kawhia Harbour were then reproduced using a 3D printer, and compared with the remains of other animals found in other parts of the world.

The result of the investigations would indicate that the children of the Young Naturalists Club have not only found the remains of a very special animal, but it seems that the specimen of the excursion is to date the most complete skeleton of a giant penguin ever discovered.

The giant penguin, according to researcher Daniel Thomas, can be dated to between 27 and 35 million years ago, in the middle of the Oligocene, the geological era when polar ice caps began to form and the retreating waters of the seas discovered new landmasses.

Oligocene giant penguin

The new species of giant penguin has been named Kairuku waewaeroa. As Dr. Thomas of Massey University explains, "the penguin is similar to the giant Kairuku penguins described by Otago, but it has much longer legs."

The unique leg length of this newly discovered species, "made this penguin much taller than others at least on land." In fact, it is believed that it was about three feet tall, and that the long legs played an important role "in the speed or depths to which it could swim."

The discovery, published these days in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, explains Dr. Thomas "is emblematic for many reasons: the fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal evolutionary lines that date back to profoundly distant times."

This new species, then, is linked to an important conservation role: "the way the fossil was discovered," he adds, "as children discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki janitors."

Kaitiaki is a Maori word meaning janitor and protector, and Junats president Mike Safey says he's confident the kids will become kaitiaki of the natural wonders of the New Zealand territory: "the kids involved will remember it for the rest of their lives," he explains "it was a great privilege for the kids in our club to discover and save this giant penguin fossil."