March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for July 2011

Salmon are better than Sand

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Happy Feet the vagrant Emperor Penguin gets treated at the Wellington Zoo. The image links to the zoo's Happy Feet Appeal Page for donations to support rehabilitation.

A few weeks back, a young Emperor Penguin arrived on the beach in New Zealand, thousands of kilometers from the normal range of the species.  It turns out the penguin got itself into serious trouble by eating sand and driftwood.  This is a fascinating behavior.  The penguin was not insane or seeking negative attention, but a natural instinct triggered in the wrong environment.  Although all penguins can extract drinking water from the sea by excreting the excess salt with special glands, Emperor Penguins take a shortcut to fresh water and obtain part of their daily requirements by eating snow.  The lost penguin was thirstily gobbling up sand by accident.  While this may sound foolish, in context it is not that strange.  In Antarctica, Emperor Penguins may never set foot on dry land for their entire lives, instead coming “ashore” only on frozen sea ice (often covered with drifts of snow).  So, anything they are standing on should be fair game for ingesting.  Unfortunately, this system fails miserably in warmer climates.

Fortunately, New Zealanders have made a big effort to save the penguin.  Veterinarians performed surgery to clear the sand from the penguins digestive tract,  a salmon company has donated vast stores of fish to replace sand with food, and a snackfood company is collecting five cents per bag of chips sold to sponsor the effort to release the penguin back into the Southern Ocean once it is healthy enough.

Perhaps there is a lesson about the dangers that altering the environment have for penguins.  We already know that Emperor Penguins need fast sea ice to breed successfully.  It may be that they need it to function at all.  If penguins are used to eating snow and are left without it, we could have many more “Happy Feet” on our hands and no way to save them.

Read more news here.

You can watch a live webcam of the penguin here.  If it seems like he spends a lot of time sleeping, remember that he is in New Zealand and the time is 16 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard there.

Written by Dan Ksepka

July 14, 2011 at 10:42 am

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Palaeoapterodytes ictus, the flightless, swimless penguin

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Following up last week’s post on a humorous mistaken “discovery”, this post revisits a bizarre misinterpretation of the fossil record. Patagonia is a land rich in fossils of all kinds, from giant sauropod dinosaurs to the tank-like armored mammalian glypotodons.  Most of these fossils are found in terrestrial deposits, but near the coast ancient marine rocks preserve a wealth remains from sea-going creatures, including a diverse set of penguins.  Sediments dating to about 20 million years ago are the main penguin bearing deposits, and the most common fossils belong to Palaeospheniscus.  The famed Paraptenodytes also lived in this region.

One of the major follies in penguin paleontology was the naming of Palaeoapterodytes ictus in 1905 by the famous Argentine paleontologist Florentino Ameghino.  The name means ancient wingless diver.  Only a single bone was used to name the species, a humerus (the main bone of the flipper).  The bone lacked is distal end, leaving Ameghino to surmise that the species had evolved towards extreme reduction of the flipper, leaving only a tiny stub of bone.  Flightless birds have reduced their wings many, many times over the course of evolutionary history.  However, penguins aren’t truly flightless when one considers that theyfly” through the water using their flippers just like volant birds fly through the air with their wings.  A wingless penguin would be an awkward fellow indeed.  I’d assume such a creature would be restricted to hopping around on the shore and perhaps making one good leap into the ocean before floating away like a buoy with no way to control itself
In reality, the bone was just damaged.  Lambrecht pointed this out in his 1933 monograph on fossil birds of the world. George Gaylord Simpson, in the days when scientists were permitted to write in a more engaging voice, wrote of Palaeoapterodytes ictus “based on a manifest error, the name might best be quietly forgotten.” Still, it is interesting to imagine what such a penguin may have looked like….

A chinstrap penguin modeled into Palaeoapterodytes with the help of photoshop

Written by Dan Ksepka

July 2, 2011 at 12:02 am

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