March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for June 2011

Latham’s Woolly Penguin

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Today we have largely settled on 19 species in our attempts to classify the living penguins.  New fossil species are found every year, but it has been a very long time since a new species of living penguin was found.  In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when most penguin species were formally given scientific names, the pace of discovery was faster and the race to name species resulted in some taxonomic slovenliness.

As western naturalists began to explore farther reaches of the oceans, more penguin species were added to the scientific catalog of species, but some species were named more than once.  In fact, some were named a dozen times or more! Naturalists “rediscovering” a penguin species already known to science may have thought they had come upon a new species because they were unaware of the published record, which was much more difficult to keep abreast of in a time without internet searches or even  telephones, or because they mistook  males and females, or young and old birds, or breeding and non-breeding birds for separate species.  The King Penguin was officially entered into the scientific literature as Aptenodytes patagonicus in 1778.  Latecomers attempted to dub King Penguins with such monikers as Aptenodytes longirostris, Aptenodytes patachonica, and Aptenodytes pennant over the next few decadesPerhaps the strangest name was Penguinarium patachonica – the genus name sounds more like a wondrous bubble-domed penguin-themed park than an animal.  The King Penguin also missed out on having the envy inspiring name “A-rex” when Aptenodytes rex was suggested (almost a century late to the table) by the Charles Bonaparte, an ornithologist who happened to be cousin to Napoleon III.

My favorite story of discovering the already known is that of Latham’s Woolly Penguin.  Explorers happened upon a creche or juvenile King Penguins in the 1800s, during the phase in the species reproductive cycle when all the adults have left the colony to replenish themselves at sea while the juveniles stand about on the shore and survive for several weeks off fat stores.  Apparently these juveniles were mistaken for a new species.  Certainly they look very different than the adults – more like big brown bags of leaves than tuxedoed penguins.   If you stop to think about it, however, this imagined species biology must have seemed strange.  What were all these penguins eating on their little scrap of wind-blown island?  Bugs? Pebbles? Sand?  It must have been something, given the juveniles can weigh more than the adults at the start of their fasting phase.  And why had they lost flight but not gained seaworthiness?  I’m not sure if these questions intrigued Latham as he jotted down the entry for the Woolly Penguin in his book.

A juvenile and adult King Penguin. Photo from flick:

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the error was recognized, and Woolly Penguins are no longer counted when penguin species role calls are taken.  King Penguins still retain a diverse wardrobe of names in common speech – many languages have their own non-scientific name for King Penguins, and some are quite delightful: for example Königspinguin (German), Kongepingvin (Danish), Rí-phiongain (Gaelic) and Le Manchot Royal (French). 


Latham J. 1821. General History of Birds. London: Winchester,
Jacob and Johnson.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Wandering Penguin

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Penguins are great wanderers.  Many species travel hundreds or even thousands of miles in the course of a year moving between feeding grounds and breeding colonies. And sometimes, they get lost.  That’s what happened to an Antarctic Emperor Penguin that turned up in New Zealand this week.  Apparently the young bird is doing well, except that it has eaten some sand.  While getting lost is usually bad for individual penguins, their penchant for roaming has benefited them over evolutionary time.  In the past 60 million years, penguins have bounced between continents to form new colonies more than 20 times.  As such wide dispersals often lead to speciation, we have wanderlust (or poor navigation) to thank for the diversity of penguin species we enjoy today.

An Emperor Penguin that made it to New Zealand. Click to link back to the original article.

Read the whole story here:

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 22, 2011 at 9:57 am

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Structural Color in the Little Blue Penguin

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How do birds get their color?  Light absorption  by pigments is one way color can be produced.  Bird feathers have pigments like melanins and carotenoids – we even have evidence for color in the fossil penguin Inkayacu from fossilized melanin-bearing structures.  Color can also be produced by physical interactions between light and biological nanostructures. These colors are called structural colors.

Left: Microscope image of keratin nanofibers in a penguin feather (photo by Liliana D’Alba). Right: Little Blue Penguin, taking a break at the aquarium.

Recently the color of Little Blue Penguins was found to be generated by a new type of structural color.  As their name implies, Little Blues are both small and wrapped in bluish feathers.  A previously unrecognized nanostructure is responsible for the blue feather barbs of these penguins.   Structural color can be generated by several different types of structures, such as tiny spheres or channels.  However, researchers were surprised to find a completely unknown nanostructural arrangement in the penguin feathers.  At the subcellular level, Little Blue Penguin feather barbs are composed of parallel b-keratin nanofibres organized into densely packed bundles.  Essentially, the miniscule structures  scatter light waves so as to give off blue color.

This is an important discovery, because learning how birds make color at the nanostructural level may help scientists synthesize artificial colored structures in the lab.  Of course, it also has implications for penguin evolution.  We are only beginning to understand how the microstructure of feathers affects their function in the air and under water.  Exciting research is on the horizon, and future investigations may yield a better understanding of what exactly makes  penguin feathers so efficient at insulation and streamlining.


D’Alba L; Sarananthan V; Clarke JA; Vinther JA; Prum RO; Shawkey MD. 2011. Colour-producing β-keratin nanofibres in blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers. Biology Letters. February 9 doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1163: 1

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

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Penguin Podcast at Critical Wit

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If you’d like to listen to a Science podcast on Penguin Evolution, please visit Critical Wit Podcast.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 9, 2011 at 9:26 am

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Tour of the Penguin Skeleton II: The Tarsometatarsus

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Ah, the tarsometatarsus.  Certainly this is the single most important bone in fossil penguin taxonomy.  Thousands of words have been spent describing the arcane details of the difficult-to-pronounce tarsometatarsus in monographs, reports of phylogenetic analyses and diagnoses justifying new species.  So what is the purpose of this famous element?  The tarsometatarsus is essentially an ankle bone.  In the human foot, there are five metatarsals and they make up the arch. In birds, there are three full sized metatarsals (and one tiny one).  However, the three full-sized elements all fuse together, joining also with some of the tarsal elements – little cube-like bones that form our own ankles.  Thus the complex name – tarso(for the tarsals)metatarsus(for the three metatarsals).  Because birds walk on their toes, most of the tarsometatarsus is held off the ground, rather than forming the sole of the foot as it does in humans.  Because multiple individual bones combine to form the tarsometatarsus, it has a very complex morphology.  For this reason, characteristics of the bone are extremely useful for distinguishing species and determining their evolutionary relationships.  In fact, more than 10 extinct penguin species have been named based on a single fossil tarsometatarsus, including the first one ever discovered, Palaeeudyptes antarcticus. One of the key features of interest are the proximal vascular foramina, small openings between the fused metatarsals that transmit blood vessels.  Sometimes there are two, sometimes only the medial one is present, and sometimes only the lateral one is present.  This simple feature can hint at which group of species a new fossil might belong to – for example, giant Anthropornis penguins tend to have only the medial foramen, while Palaeeudyptes penguins tend to have only the lateral.  Another feature is the set of grooves that partially separate the three metatarsals – if they are very deep, this can help identify a penguin of the genus Spheniscus.  Finally, there is the shape of the trochleae, the three pulley-shaped ends projections at the end of the bone where the toes attach.  There are quite robust (penguins have thick toes). The one for the fourth toe is straight, rather than deflect outwards, which gives the foot a more “pigeon-toed” alignment – that is, except in Waimanu, the most primitive penguin genus.

Tarsometatarsus of a tree duck (left) and a penguin (right).

If we compare the tarsometatarsus of a penguin to that of a close relative like a petrel, the first difference that pops out is shape.  A penguin tarsometatarsus is much shorter and wider than a normal birds, appearing very stout and blocky. This is part of the reason penguins have such an endearing waddle on dry land – their feet are very stubby!  Another interesting feature is that there are clear grooves marking the boundaries of the three metatarsals, whereas there is no trace of separation in normal birds.  This feature may be a form of neotony, the retention of juvenile characteristics in to adulthood – we suspect this because hatchling birds have separate metatarsals which fuse together as they grow.  The observation of this neotenous character, along with the mistaken belief that penguins were always flightless, led early ornithologists to consider penguins as the most primitive type of birds.  We now know this is not true, and that penguins secondarily evolved these characteristics from a volant (flighted) ancestor.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 6, 2011 at 11:14 am

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