March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

A Penguin Conveyor Belt in the South Atlantic

with 9 comments

In our recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science, Dr. Daniel Thomas and I attempted to unravel the biogeography of the extinct penguin species of Africa – that is, to figure out where they came from.

There are two main hypotheses for the history of Africa’s penguin fauna.  One is that they represent an endemic radiation.  In this scenario, a single founding population of penguins (perhaps just a few individuals) arrive in Africa to find it a wide open swath of penguin paradise.  With plenty of prey available in the cold waters of the Bengali current and ample safe rocky islands to nest on, these colonizing individuals could have rapidly multiplied.  Over time, the original species could have split off into multiple species as selective pressures pushed for different traits.  Endemic radiations are well-documented in birds, most famously in the case of Darwin’s Galapagos finches.  In that instance, a single species of finch split into more than a dozen distinct species over the course of a few million years.  Arriving in a near ecological vacuum, the founding finches evolved a range of different beak shapes and behaviors to exploit different food sources.  It is not too hard to image the same thing happening as penguins arrived on a continent new to them, without any direct competitors.

The second hypothesis is that the extinct penguin species arrived separately, in multiple waves of dispersal.  Each species would thus have a separate ancestor on some other continent.  Waves of dispersal are also common in island avifaunas.  An amazing example is Hawaii’s assemblage of bizarre ducks and geese, now tragically almost entirely extinct.  One of the few surviving species is the Nēnē, a descendant of wayward Canada Geese that became stranded on the islands.  In the fossil record we find some stranger examples, including the giant “toothed” Moa-Nalos.  These thundering flightless birds weighted up to 15 pounds and evolved from Mallard Ducks that gave up flight in favor of large size.  Another intriguing example is Talpanas, a litter-foraging duck that was probably nearly blind and nocturnal, guiding itself with its powerful sense of smell.  This species evolved from a Ruddy Duck-like ancestor.

In order to test which hypothesis was more likely, we constructed an evolutionary tree of the South Africa penguins and fossil species from elsewhere.  What we found is that two of the extinct species, Inguza predemersus and Nucleornis insolitus, were NOT close relatives of the living Blackfooted Penguin (the only species that breeds in Africa today).  This rules them out as being either ancestors of the Blackfooted Penguin or part of an endemic radiation.  In fact, Inguza predemersus and Nucleornis insolitus were not even particularly close relatives of one another, and so must have arrived in Africa separately rather than splitting off from a single ancestor.  The waves of dispersal hypothesis wins out.  At least three separate dispersals must have occurred.  There may have been even more, because two other species of extinct penguins are known from Africa’s fossil record.  Unfortunately, we know too little about them to guess where they belong on the evolutionary tree.  If we later find out they are also related to other non-African penguins, we could have up to five dispersals on our hands.

The South Atlantic Gyre. Black dots show the places where Blackfooted Penguins breed today, and stars show the sites where fossils of extinct penguins have been found in Africa.

So, how did all these waves of penguins make it to Africa?  It seems like ocean currents played a big role.  One major circulation system in the southern oceans is the South Atlantic Gyre.  This system of currents creates a huge counterclockwise flow that may have served as a “penguin conveyor belt” from South America to South Africa.  Penguins have been in South America for at least 40 million years, and this continent was identified as the most likely area of origin for the ancestors of the African penguins in our analysis. One possible scenario involves penguins from the South American coast getting caught up in the Brazil Current while foraging out at sea, and swept away from the coast.  From here they could become entrained in the east-flowing South Atlantic Current and after a long journey (penguins can survive at sea for months at a time) the Benguela Current could have swept them back up the coast of Africa to dry land. We propose that this type of current-aided dispersal happened may times, and that currents are the main reason why Africa has penguins today, while Madagascar, which is surrounded by unfavorable currents pushing southward and away from the coast, does not.

Written by Dan Ksepka

September 9, 2011 at 10:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Have any penguins from Africa returned to South America via the South Equatorial current? Either individual vagrants like Happy Feet or populations that founded a new species?


    September 10, 2011 at 9:35 am

    • There is no evidence that African penguins have ever made the reverse trip to start a new colony in South America. Sometimes individuals do make it pretty far offshore to end up on islands in the vicinity of Africa, but to my knowledge they have never been spotted on a different continent. If they did make it, they would have competition from existing penguins and it would be harder to get started.

      Dan Ksepka

      September 10, 2011 at 10:38 am

  2. […] more at Ksepka’s blog: A Penguin Conveyor Belt in the South Atlantic Meet Inguza, the Smallest Penguin from Africa var addthis_language = 'en'; Tags: life sciences, […]

  3. Hey your penguins are sso cute

    Calista Yocom

    March 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

  4. do you have infromation about australian penguins

    Calista Yocom

    March 5, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    • Calista, there are a few fossil penguin specimens, but no whole skeletons. So, we don’t know too much about them other than that there was at least three very large species and a few more normal sized ones. It would be interesting to figure out where they came from but I think it would take more discoveries to be sure.

      Dan Ksepka

      March 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

  5. Did you see the documentary in Discovery? The penguins are not on their natural cycle now because of the damn global warming.

    Visit site

    June 21, 2012 at 12:18 am

  6. I was wondering whether paleontologists have seen any indication that some extinct species of African penguin are closely related, and possibly the same species, as any extinct South American penguins? I was thinking that would be pretty strong evidence to further support your hypothesis!

    Zack Neher

    July 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    • Zack, that is an important question. We don’t have enough fossil evidence to tell for sure whether the extinct African species are related to some of the extinct South American species yet, but if we are able to find more bones – especially skulls – in the future this would be an important issue to resolve.

      Dan Ksepka

      July 29, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: