March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Plenty of Penguins Once Roamed Africa

with 3 comments

Evidence is mounting that Africa was once quite the penguin hotspot. Last year, Dr. Daniel Thomas and I published a paper looking at the biogeography of African penguins – that is, deciphering where they came from.  We found evidence that penguins likely made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean several times, crossing from South America to Africa by riding out the currents of the South Atlantic Gyre. The fossil species we looked at in that study were about 5 million years old. Today, our  second article was released, detailing fossils from older deposits. These fossils come from the Miocene Saldanha Steel locality, which dates to nearly 12 million years in age.  Penguin bones from Saldanha Steel have a sort of rugged appeal.  They are stained a dark orangy-brown color and have been tumbled around with rocks and sand till they are quite worn. This created a bit of a puzzle, requiring some careful comparisons (and a little bit of adhesive) to figure out what each bone represented.

Although only isolated bones have been found so far, it is clear that there were at least four different species in the area around 12 million years ago.  We can tell this based on the size differences of the elements that were found.  Biggest of the Saldanha Steel penguins is a hefty bird that was about the same size as the living King Penguin (the second largest living species) based on the length of its flipper bones.  In fact, the sternum of the animal suggests it may have been a relative of King and Emperor Penguins, but we will need more fossils to be sure. There are two average sized penguins, represented by an assortment of leg and flipper bones and one lower jaw bone. Smallest of the Saldanha Steel penguins was a tiny Little Blue Penguin sized species that would have been only a foot tall in life. We are lucky to have detected the presence of this tiny fellow, because small bird bones are rare at the site. Only a single vertebra (part of the spinal column) was uncovered. Despite being just a small bit of bone, it is an clear match for a penguin. Penguins have special ball and socket style joints in their lower vertebrae that almost no other birds possess. Beyond this, they have lost the pneumatic openings exhibited by the other birds which have this style of vertebrae (cormorants and gannets).

We were surprised to find so many different size classes living in the area. In the next post, we will explore what may have been going on back in the Miocene.

Bones from different sized penguins found at the Saldanha Steel fossil site, with bones of the modern Kind Penguin, Black-footed Penguin, and Little Blue Penguin for Scale,

Bones from different sized penguins found at the Saldanha Steel fossil site, with bones of the modern King Penguin, Black-footed Penguin, and Little Blue Penguin for scale.

Reference: Thomas, D.B. and D.T. Ksepka. In Press. A history of shifting fortunes for African penguins. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 26, 2013 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Very interesting stuff, Dan.

    Paul D Brinkman

    March 26, 2013 at 10:21 am

  2. It is so cool how you could tell that those bones were from penguin wings!!!!! I love to do puzzles so I know that is hard to figure out expecally if you have a bunch of peices mixed up together that might be form difrent ones!!!!!


    March 26, 2013 at 11:19 am

  3. […] by Dr. Daniel Thomas of Massey University, master penguin pigments and  longtime collaborator on African penguins and penguin counter-current heat […]

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: