Archive for December 2012
Here to ring in the holiday season is Santa Penguin, apparently one of many penguins dressed up for a Christmas parade in South Korea. If you’ve been good all year, he may just reach his flipper into his bag of salty herring and squids and find something special to leave under the tree for you. You can see a whole gallery of the images here.
Recently my colleague Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce received a prestigious national award, the Hutton Medal. The Hutton Medal is awarded each year by the Royal Society of New Zealand to recognize outstanding research in plant, animal or earth science. Discipline rotates over a three year cycle, and this year was an “earth” year. The medal is named for Captain Frederick Wollaston Hutton, an early supporter of Charles Darwin and describer of many species of New Zealand fish, invertebrates and birds. Among the past recipients of the award is Walter Reginald Brook Oliver, who wrote the seminal book New Zealand Birds. He named the fossil species Pachydyptes ponderosus (probably the heaviest penguin ever to have lived) and was also the first to formally name the Snares Penguin (Eudyptes robustus).
It is very welcome news to hear that Dr. Fordyce has received this award, for no one has contributed more to our understanding of extinct penguins from New Zealand. Over the years, he has discovered and collected dozens of important specimens and authored papers on the species Waimanu manneringi, Waimanu tuatahi, and Kaiika maxwelli. I had the distinct pleasure of working together with him on the description of Kairuku waitaki and Kairuku grebneffi. Although Dr. Fordyce has contributed heartily to the field collection and scientific study of fossil penguins, he is more widely known in scientific realms for his research on cetaceans. In the past, New Zealand was home to many unusual dolphins and whales, including primitive “proto-baleen” whales that still retained proper teeth, some of the most ancient baleen whale species, a pug-nosed dolphin, and menacing shark-toothed dolphins. You can read more about these wonderful seafaring creatures here. Many of these fascinating fossils impress children in museums and give paleontologists data to ponder thanks to Dr. Fordyce’s work.
So, a hearty congratulations is due. It is not every day that one wins a medal with both a kiwi and a tuatara engraved upon it, and it is certainly a moment to savor.
Last post we touched on a fossil penguin that I incorrectly assumed was named after Artic explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld. As reader John Carlson kindly pointed out, the penguin is actually named after Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld’s nephew Otto Nordenskjöld. Otto, also a polar explorer, sailed on the ship Antarctic. The ship was captained by Carl Anton Larsen, who incidentally also has a penguin named after him (Delphinornis larsenii). In one of their adventures, Otto and his party were stranded on Snow Hill Island when the Antarctic failed to pick them up on the scheduled day – with good reason, having been crushed in ice. Larsen and the crew were forced to find themselves shelter on another island. After enduring great deprivations (including, grimly from our point of view, a steady diet of penguins), both groups were rescued by the Argentine naval ship Uruguay.
Seymour Island is located near the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. This prolific fossil site has yielded up a massive haul of fossil penguin bones starting over the past century. Thousands of specimens have been collected and there is evidence for about a dozen different species of penguins living side by side in the area roughly 40 million years ago. One of the biggest species is named Anthropornis nordenskjoeldii. Anthropornis means “man bird”, referring to its massive size and “nordenskjoeldii” honors polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Somewhat ironically for the honoree of a penguin species name, his explorations were primarily in the high North. Among other exploits, he collected fossils on the island of Spitsbergen.
One of the difficulties of studying the Seymour Island penguins is that despite the abundance of bones, almost all of them are isolated. The area seems to have been an estuary, and the frenetic meeting of river and ocean waters may have worked to scatter penguin bones all around. I’ve looked at hundreds of specimens of Seymour Island penguins, and the only two specimens I have ever seen that include more than one bone are a “fossil knee” including the patella, piece of the femur and a piece of the tibiotarsus and a hip socket with a chunk of the femur stuck in it. Isolated bones can be frustrating when there are multiple species that are the same size living in an area. How can we tell whether this sharp beak belongs to that wing? How can can we tell whether the wide foot bone belongs to the penguin with the long neck bones? It poses a particularly difficult challenge to efforts to understand fossil penguin locomotion, because we really want whole flippers or hindlimbs from a single bird if we are going to predict diving or walking style accurately.
As it turns out, a nearly complete flipper from Seymour Island has been known from nearly 60 years. The great New Zealand penguin paleontologist Dr. Brian J. Marples studied the bones in 1953. Marples was a very cautious paleontologist, and avoided naming new species or assigning bones to the same individual unless there was overwhelming evidence. He noted the bones all fit together, but gave them separate numbers and they ended up with their own little tags in the collection. Flash forward to 2012. Dr. Piotr Jadwiszczak at Uniwersytet w Białymstoku revisited the bones in a recent paper. He found evidence from the preservation, siding, and proportions of the bones that they most likely belong to a single individual. This lets us finally get a good idea how the flipper of Anthropornis was built. Leg bones were recovered nearby too, and they probably also belong to this particular penguin.
The flipper is robust – very bulky compared to modern species. One of the strangest things about the flipper is that the tip of the flipper shows a “modern” plan, with the third metacarpal extending past the second (in essence, the bone that would make up the base of the middle finger in a person is longer than the bone that would make up the pointer finger). This advanced feature suggests that Anthropornis may have been more closely related to living penguins than previously thought, although other features of the skeleton would argue that it was very primitive. A primitive feature of the flipper is the great angling between the bones, which results in a somewhat more auk-like wing as opposed to the very straight wings of modern penguins. In the past, this angling has been connected to poorer diving capacities, but as Dr. Jadwiszczak and our own papers have noted this is not necessarily true. Auks can reach tremendous depths, and they are at a disadvantage compared to penguins because of their higher buoyancy and less dense bones. Anthropornis appears to have been a strong diver based on the flipper.
Reference: Jadwiszczak, P. 2012. Partial limb skeleton of a “giant penguin” Anthropornis from the Eocene of Antarctic Peninsula. Polish Polar Research 23: 259-274.