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.