March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

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

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