March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Posts Tagged ‘Expeditions

Heading Home

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Today, the excursion comes to an end.  After pursuing penguins in the quarry, in the museum, and in the oceans (we saw some Little Blues on one return drive), Dr. Brinkman and I will return to North Carolina.  However, the work has only just begun.  Over the next few months, Dr. Fordyce and I will continue studying the fossils and seeing just how much they can tell us about how ancient penguins lived. Eventually the results will be announced – and you can read about it right here.  Thanks to everyone who followed along and posted comments.  I’ll pick up the thread again after the holidays – some very exciting New Zealand penguin news is on the horizon.

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

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Success!

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Back in the lab, we have started preparing the penguin specimen collected from the Kokoamu Greensand.  As each grain of matrix is removed, more of the animal springs to life.  In the field, we noted that there were several wing bones exposed in the cliff face.  Preparation proved two of these bones to be the humerus (the main bone of the flipper) and the coracoid (part of the shoulder girdle).  But here was also a surprise.  One of the small pieces of bone we exposed in the field turned out to be part of the beak (upper right).  After preparing the area more extensively, we are now certain we have a spear-billed penguin.

It will take many more hours to reveal all the bones in the block.  Let’s hope there are more surprises in the block!

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 19, 2011 at 9:10 am

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Some More from the Field

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Here are a few more images from our prospecting and collecting forays into the Oligocene and Miocene. It has been a busy week and we will be wrapping things up soon.

A great exposure of Oteikake Limestone. In the background the Southern Alps beckon. Last time I visited, it was the southern winter and the mountains were cloaked in snow. Changing seasons, especially a good rain, can help expose new fossils by eroding any the rock.

 

Dr. Ewan Fordyce points out a fossil discovery at the base of an overhang.

 

One of those quiet, pleasant moments in life: a caterpillar has made its cocoon in a tiny cutting where a fossil shell was removed earlier.

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm

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Walking on Seashells (and Penguins)

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The latest stop on our search for penguins takes us to the Otekaike Limestone.  This unit spans the Oligocene-Miocene boundary, with fossils dating to about 25 million years ago.  Shells abound in the Otekaike Limestone – it is almost like walking along a never-ending high tide line after a storm.

Walking on shells – it is literally impossible not to step on them!

Today’s trip yielded a few bits of penguin bone, including the base of a flipper and, more importantly from a scientific perspective, a whale skull bone.  Each piece brings us closer to understanding what these extinct species were like.  Even though the Otekaike Limestone is only a few million years younger than the Kokoamu Greensand, the penguins are much smaller and more modern looking.  Comparing fossils from the two Formations is like viewing two frames of a film on penguin evolution, one taken a few moments after the other.  Lots of other frames are missing, but the movie is still showing today in New Zealand, Antarctica, and everywhere else living penguins thrive.

Sample of the shelly fauna. A: Zealcolpus, a turret-shell gastropod, B: another gastropod, probably Alcithoe, C: Lentipecten, a scallop, D: Cucullaea, an ark shell bivalve, E: Waipairia, a brachiopod.

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 17, 2011 at 12:08 am

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Penguin in Hand

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Here is the end of the excavation.  The cutting in the rock is much larger than the fossil, but we need to keep some leeway in the form of rock around the bone, so none are damaged by removal or transportation.  The smaller opening is from another find, some fossil whale bones. Now, packed in burlap and cushioned by foam, the fossils will make the long journey back to the lab.

 

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 16, 2011 at 9:36 pm

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Collecting penguins in the Kokoamu Greensand

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The Kokoamu Greensand is the final resting place of many archaic penguins and dolphins.  Formed about 26 million years ago when much of present day New Zealand was covered by the Pacific Ocean, these deposits are exposed along modern day river valleys.  Coarse grains of greenish to orange sand record the layering of sands and the burrowings of invertebrates over millions years.  Some of the most common fossils are pectins (scallops) and brachiopods.  The later are sometimes known as lampshells because of their vague resemblance to Roman oil lamps, and are very rare today.

 

An exposure of Kokoamu Greensand, marine rocks now stranded far inland in a grassy hillside.

Our main target on this trip is a fossil penguin that Dr. Fordyce found exposed along a cliff face. With the bones visible in cross-section a meter up, the only way to get the fossils back to the lab is to cut them out of the rock.  Using a chainsaw, air scribes (aided by a gas powered compressor), picks and crowbars, we will slowly extract the fossil intact within the rock. In the montage below, you can see the start of the excavation.

A fossil returns to the light of day.  At left, penguin bones exposed in cross-section. At center Paul and I begin chipping away with air scribes. At right, the cutting grows as more bones are exposed. Photos courtesy of R. Ewan Fordyce.

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 16, 2011 at 4:32 am

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On the Hunt for Fossil Penguins

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During this trip, we will search for some South Island penguins in a few of the richest fossil sites worldwide.  It takes a lot of tools and supplies.  Here, in early morning chill, the equipment is laid out. Wish us luck!

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December 15, 2011 at 3:34 pm

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