Archive for February 2012
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology is making our article on Kairuku freely available. If you’d like to read the whole story (all 30 pages), please help yourself to a PDF.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has put out a packet of information about Kairuku. Check it out!
Today, two new fossil penguin species formally enter the scientific catalog. These 27 million year old penguins are unique, “svelte” species with graceful proportions discovered in New Zealand. I worked on these incredible fossils in 2009 and 2011 with Dr. Ewan Fordyce of the University of Otago and former Otago students Dr. Tatsuro Ando and Dr. Craig Jones (now at the Ashoro Museum of Paleontology and Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, respectively) on a scientific article describing the new species and the new details they reveal about penguin evolution. Our findings are now published in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
So, what makes Kairuku so special? The three skeletons discovered are among the most complete ever recovered for an ancient penguin. They reveal that Kairuku penguins cut a striking figure. They had more slender proportions than living penguins, with an elongate trunk, narrow bill, and long, narrow wing bones. The legs, on the other hand, were quite robust. Overall, the skeleton conveys a very elegant bird, sleek yet powerful. And, they were tall. A standing Kairuku penguin would have reached about 4 feet 2 inches, more than a foot taller than an Emperor Penguin. Artist Chris Gaskin created a meticulous reconstruction of the new species that really drives these features home. You can practically feel the wind whipping sand and ocean spray into the air as the two penguins come ashore.
The name Kairuku is taken from Maori language, and loosely translates to “diver who returns with food”. Kairuku waitaki is named for the large river that flows through modern Canterbury and Otago. Kairuku grebneffi is named in honor of the late Andrew Grebneff, who contributed to the field collection and preparation of many of the fossil specimens of both species.
The first Kairuku specimens were discovered by the great New Zealand zoologist and paleontologist Dr. Brian J. Marples in the 1940s, but these bones were not immediately recognized as belonging to a new species because they were not very well preserved and typically included only a few pieces of the wing skeleton. Highly complete skeletons were later recovered by Dr. Ewan Fordyce, starting with a wonderful discovery along the banks of the Waihao River in 1977. This skeleton, a beautiful set of orange fossil bones embedded in soft greensand matrix, would turn out to be the holotype specimen of Kairuku – the standard by which all Kairuku specimens shall henceforth be compared to. Over the next 35 years, many more Kairuku specimens have been found. In fact, the most recent was collected only two months ago during our field excursion in New Zealand.
March of the Fossil Penguins will be announcing some new fossil penguin discoveries on February 27th. Stay tuned……
We always try to find some holiday-related penguin content and here is one of the more unusual Valentine’s stories for penguins. A pair of penguins at the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium is being married (twice a day no less). Xiaobai and Xiaoxue are Humboldt Penguins. They were chosen because this species, like many penguins, often forms strong pair bonds. The best part of the video is seeing the penguins being driven in a remote control car.
David Stephens at National Geographic snapped this picture of a rare white penguin on the Aitcho Islands. This Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) is not albino, it is leucistic. Albino animals lack pigment, typically because of a flaw in an enzyme involved in producing melanin. You may remember learning a little about penguin melanin in the fossil penguin Inkayacu. Leucistic animals are able to form melanin, but generally have a mix of cells that produce melanin and cells that cannot. This results in a “washed out” appearance in cases like the penguin below. Whatever triggered the condition (typically a gene mutation is involved), the penguin ended up with light brownish coloration on its back instead of the black coloration of normal Chinstrap Penguins. Notice, though, that the beak and part of the feet are still black. Leucism often affects a particular area of a bird rather than the entire individual. White penguins turn up in the wild every year. However, it appears that either the mutations associated with leucism are recessive or the condition harms the penguins by ruining their counter-shading camouflage, because second generations have never been documented.