March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for May 2011

Featherless Penguin Gets a Helping Hand from Humans

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Several posts ago, we talked about penguin molting strategies.  One of the interesting things about penguin molts is that they shed all their feathers rapidly over the course of two or three weeks, rather than gradually throughout entire the year.  But, that doesn’t mean that penguins drop all their feathers and wait about naked while they wait for new ones to grow in.  During the molt period, the new feathers push the old feathers out as they emerge from within the skin.  This way, new feathers are ready to go by the time the old ones fall off.  At least, most of the time.

Ralph is a Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) at the Marwell Wildlife center in the UK.  Probably due to some type of genetic problem, Ralph sheds all his old feathers before the new ones emerge during molt season.  This poses a big problem because his pink penguin hide could be burned to a crisp in the sun without protection.  The zookeepers came up with an innovative and somewhat comical solution – a penguin wetsuit.  Ralph gets zipped into a miniature jacket made from the leg of  human wetsuit until his new feathers grow in.  Apparently the other penguins in the enclosure were baffled at first but shortly thereafter accepted him back into the group.

Ralph the penguin gets ready for a swim.

You can watch a short video of Ralph here:

Written by Dan Ksepka

May 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

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Kaiika maxwelli

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Kaiika maxwelli is the newest species of penguin to be formally recognized by science.  This ancient species is from the Early Eocene, and thus one of the oldest penguins known. It is also one of the most primitive.  Kaiika maxwelli is known only from a single bone – actually, it is known only from the mold of a single bone.  A humerus, the main bone of the flipper, was preserved inside a nodule of rock, but over time much of the bone crumbled away.  Fortunately, a perfect mold was left in the harder rock and paleontologists at the Otago Museum were able to create a resin cast replicating the bone in great detail.  Much information can be gleaned from this cast.  Many of the muscle insertions exhibit a primitive morphology, retaining patterns that are lost in modern penguins.  The tricipital fossa, an open chamber in the humerus, is single instead of divided.  The shaft of the bone is curved in a sigmoid shape instead of being straight.  Attachment sites of some muscles that are greatly reduced in living penguins are still visible. Still, it is clear that Kaiika maxwelli, which reached slightly above the maximum size of the Emperor Penguin could not fly.

Evidence suggests that Kaiika maxwelli was one of the last survivors of the “first generation” of penguins, including Waimanu manneringi  and Waimnau tuatahi, that plied the waters of New Zealand about 60-55 million years ago.  Later penguins would escape out into the Southern Oceans and spread to many other continents and islands, but these early New Zealand forms give us the best glimpse at what the first penguins were like. New Zealand penguins often have euphonic names taken from the Maori language.  Kaiika means “fish eater”, which is a pretty safe bet despite the fact that no skull has yet been found for the species. The species name honors the late Dr. Phillip Maxwell, a paleontologist and stratigrapher who found the fossil in 1998.

Humerus (flipper bone) of Kaiika maxwelli, a new penguin described by Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce and Dr. Daniel Thomas. The specimen is a resin cast made from a mold of the humerus found in a stone nodule.


Fordyce, R.E. and D.B. Thomas. 2011. Kaiika maxwelli, a new Early Eocene archaic penguin (Sphenisciformes, Aves) from Waihao Valley, South Canterbury, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics. 54: 43-51

Written by Dan Ksepka

May 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized