When the dinosaurs died, the gigantic penguins inherited the Earth. Or at least, part of the Earth’s oceans.
Researchers say they’ve unearthed the fossilized remains of a “monster penguin” in New Zealand, which likely stood up to 1.6 metres tall, making it about the same size as a five-foot-three human. It would have weighed approximately 80 kilograms, or 175 pounds.
As one Twitter user pointed out, the monster penguin would have been big enough for a human to ride — if only we’d been around back then.
The birds likely evolved to their gigantic size after the dinosaurs and most of the gigantic ocean reptiles died out 65 million years ago, according to Jim Scofield, curator at the Canterbury Museum and lead researcher on the fossils. He says the monster penguin lived approximately 60 million years ago.
“The oceans were ripe for the picking with the lack of mega predators,” Scofield told The Associated Press. “It looks like what was going on was that penguins were just starting to exploit that niche.”
The monster penguin was 30 centimetres taller and two times heavier than the emperor penguin, the largest penguin alive today, according to the findings published in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.
Dr. Paul Scofield, senior curator natural history at Canterbury Museum, holds the fossil, a tibiotarsus, top, next to a similar bone of an emperor penguin in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Local man Leigh Love found the monster penguin’s leg bones sticking out of an eroding river bank near Christchurch some 18 months ago, and reported the find to local scientists.
“It wasn’t until I got the fossils home and did a little preparation that I realized I had something completely different than what had been found before,” he told The Associated Press.
The monster penguin fossil, a tarsometatarsus, left, is displayed next to a similar bone for an emperor penguin in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Scofield’s team eventually determined that the leg bones belonged to a massive species of penguin, which they have since dubbed Crossvallia waiparensis, after the Waipara River where it was found.
Scofield says the discovery is significant because it lines up with another giant penguin fossil found in Antarctica in 2000. Together, the fossils show that New Zealand and Antarctica were once connected.
New Zealand was once the land of giant birds, according to the fossil record. Paleontologists have unearthed the remains of several giant bird species, including a toddler-sized parrot, a giant eagle and an emu-like moa.
Scofield says the giant birds flourished because prehistoric New Zealand did not have any predators large enough to threaten them. Giant penguins became extinct within the last 30 million years as larger marine mammals returned to the oceans.
Massey University Professor John Cockrem, a penguin expert who wasn’t involved in the research, said the discovery was significant. He also suggested that the find will cement New Zealand’s reputation as the premiere penguin place on the planet.
Scofield and his team say they discovered other fascinating penguin fossils at the site, but they’re not prepared to share those findings — yet.
—With files from The Associated Press
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