March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Megadyptes waitaha – The last penguin to go extinct

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Island birds have undergone some of the most fascinating radiations in evolutionary history, producing such wonders as the “toothed” Moa-Nalo ducks (Chelychelynechen, Thambetochen and Ptaiochen) of Hawaii and the enormous nine foot tall Elephant Birds (Aepyornis) of Madagascar. Island birds have also been devastated by human exploitation. The Dodo (Raphus), once an inhabitant of Mauritius, is an icon of extinction. Sadly, the Dodo is only the most well-known member of this club. Giant moa were hunted to extinction in New Zealand. Dozens of unique birds including Moa-Nalos, flightless ibises and nectar-feeding songbirds were wiped off the Hawaiian Islands following the arrival of humans. Today, many of the native bird species of Guam are severely endangered by predation by invasive snakes, introduced by humans.

Penguins were long thought to have been exempt from this fate. Because they can retreat to the sea where they are difficult to capture, penguins are somewhat less vulnerable to hunting than many other types of birds, particularly other flightless ones. Although historically harassed by humans in many ways, no penguin species was thought to have been wiped out until a very recent discovery. A team of researchers in New Zealand and Australia rounded up subfossil bones from archeological sites from the South Island of New Zealand ranging from 200 to 1500 years in age. They extracted ancient DNA from the bones and compared the sequences to other collected from live Yellow-Eyed Penguins (and museum specimens of the same species). The findings were startling – a wide genetic distance was uncovered separating the pre-1500s mainland penguin bones from post-1500s bones. The younger bones belong to the modern Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), and their DNA sequences cluster with samples from living individuals and subfossil bones of the species from outside the mainland. However, DNA from the pre-1500s subfossil bones from the mainland don’t cluster with the Yellow-eyed Penguin samples. DNA evidence suggests a distinct species of penguin was living on the South Island of New Zealand. This conclusion is backed up by careful comparisons of the bones, which demonstrates size and shape differences outside the range of normal variation seen in living Yellow-Eyed Penguins. The newly recognized, recently extinct species was named Megadyptes waitaha by the team.

Bones of the living Yellow-Eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes (left side of each pair) and the recently extinct Megadyptes waitaha (right side of each pair).

Dating of the fossil deposits suggests that Megadyptes waitaha survived all the way up to the time of colonization, overlapping with the fist human settlers to arrive from Polynesia. Direct evidence from associated artifacts shows that humans actively hunted these penguins, and the circumstantial evidence from timing strongly points to overexploitation as the proximal cause of their extinction. A second interesting finding of this study is that the modern Yellow-eyed Penguin seems to have benefited from the extinction of Megadyptes waitaha. Comparisons of the morphology of subfossil penguin bones, along with DNA extraction, reveals that in the 1500s the Yellow-eyed Penguin was restricted to sub-Antarctic islands such as the Auklands. During this same time period, Megadyptes waitaha inhabited a wide swath of the east coast of the South Island. Flash forward to 1800, and Megadyptes waitaha is nowhere to be found anywhere. Yellow-eyed Penguins crop up nearly everywhere that Megadyptes waitaha used to be. The timing suggests that as hunting patterns shifted, prime penguin real estate vacated by Megadyptes waitaha was reclaimed by Megadyptes antipodes.

So, Megadyptes waitaha is now a ghost on our collective consciences. These bones are something to think of when penguin populations suffer from oil spills, rampaging stray dogs, or overdeveloped beaches. There were at least 20 species of penguins when humans first appeared, and now we have 19 species left to enjoy and protect.


Boessenkool, S.; Austin, J.J.; Worthy, T.H.W.; Scofield R.P.; Cooper, A.; Seddon, P.J.; Waters, J.M. 2009. Relict or colonizer? Extinction and range expansion of Penguins in southern New Zealand. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 276:815-821.

James, H.F. and Olson, S.L. 1991. Descriptions of thirty-two new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part 2. Passeriformes. Ornithological Monographs, 46: 1-88.

Olson, S.L. and James, H.F. 1991. Descriptions of thirty-two new species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands: Part 1. Non-Passeriformes. Ornithological Monographs, 45: 1-88.

Written by Dan Ksepka

August 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm

2 Responses

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  1. “no penguin species was thought to have been wiped out until a very recent discovery”
    I’m not a penguin expert, but isn’t the Great Auk a penguin species which was hunted to extinction by man?

    As a general comment, I recently discovered your blog and absolutely love it. Hope you keep on writing!


    August 17, 2010 at 5:49 am

  2. I can answer this one! The great auk is not a penguin, but an alcid – they are similar in appearance, but not closely related. In several languages, the great auk’s common name was something akin to the modern English word “penguin,” and its scientific name is Pinguinus impennis. When European explorers discovered penguins in the southern hemisphere, they noticed their similarities to the great auk, which at the time was called a penguin, and so called them penguins too.

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post!


    August 17, 2010 at 7:55 am

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