Archive for September 2013
Penguins rarely make it to altitudes more than a few feet above sea level. In an interesting case reported at the International Penguin Conference, Dr. Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche presented a talk on penguin fossils from Cerro Plataforma in the Patagonian Cordillera. No, these were not mountain climbing penguins exploring treacherous passes. These fossils were transported upward long after their demise roughly fifteen million years ago. Along with the penguin bones fossilized seashells and shark teeth were also discovered, clear indicators that the bones were deposited in an oceanic environment.
Cerro Plataforma is an unexpected place to find penguins, because it is nearly a mile about sea level today. The fact that marine fossils have been lifted so spectacularly skyward from their original resting place on the seafloor speaks to the tremendous geological forces responsible for building the Andes – a process that still continues today and periodically manifests itself in severe earthquakes. These particular bones appear to have belonged to Palaeospheniscus bergi, one member of a radiation of penguins that thrived in South America during the Miocene but ultimately died out. The penguins may be a clue to the mystery of where the Cerro Plataforma marine rocks actually came from. There is some debate over whether they formed in the Atlantic or Pacific, a seemingly simply question that is obfuscated by the jumbling of the rocks under tectonic forces. It is interesting to note that regardless of whether the Cerro Plataforma rocks turn out to have been formed in the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, Palaeospheniscus penguins have been found all the way from Argentina to Peru. This indicates they not only lived in both oceans, but that their range stretched over a huge range of latitude, from near the Equator presumably down close to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Thus these penguins achieved a pattern of distribution like that of Spheniscus penguins today, wrapping around almost all of the habitable areas of South America. It is likely they made it out onto nearby islands as well, but so far we have almost no fossils from offshore localities to verify this.
Acosta-Hospitaleche, C. and M. Griffin. 2013. Middle Cenozoic penguin remains from the Patagonian Cordillera. 8th International Penguin Conference Abstracts: 31.
Peru has yielded some amazing penguin fossils. In the deep past, over 30 million years ago, we have evidence of such wonders as the spear-beaked Icadyptes salasi and the feathered penguin “mummy” Inkayacu paracasensis. Closer to the present, roughly eleven million years ago, we start to see the first records of modern penguin genera turn up, sometimes as spectacularly well-preserved fossils. During the paleontology section of the International Penguin Conference, we heard about exciting new Spheniscus specimens from Martín Chávez, a PhD student at the University of Bristol.
The penguin genus Spheniscus includes four living species, which are the most warm-weather tolerant of the living penguins. Fossil evidence suggests this group of penguins first evolved in coastal South America, later spreading across the Atlantic to South Africa and across the Pacific to the Galápagos Islands. Fossils from Peru reveal the earliest glimpses of this lineage. Spheniscus muizoni is the oldest crown clade, or modern-type, penguin known at 11-13 million years in age.
Martín Chávez presented a study of several new specimens representing multiple extinct Spheniscus species. Two of the most impressive extinct Spheniscus species are the “bobble-headed” penguins Spheniscus urbinai and Spheniscus megaramphus. For many years, we have known that Spheniscus urbinai was a “tough” penguin with a robust postcranial skeleton. However, Spheniscus megaramphus has been known formally only from the holotype skull for the past decade. Nearly complete skeletons have recently come to light – Martín showed in his presentation that this species was even bigger and more powerfully built than Spheniscus urbinai He also showed off some excellent artwork in the form of skeletal reconstructions of these penguins. Side by side with a modern penguin, the differences really stand out. These penguins were larger and armed with more heavily constructed beaks than any modern species of Spheniscus, and surely took bigger prey than the anchovies preferred by the Humboldt Penguins that frequent Peruvian coastlines today. Closer examination of skulls from Peru even suggests there may have been multiple “megaramphus-type” species. So the picture of penguin diversity in the last few million years continues to improve.
Chávez Hoffmeister, M.F. 2013. The Peruvian Neogene penguins. Abstracts of the 8th International Penguin Conference: 32.
Chávez Hoffmeister, M.F. 2013. A review of the Peruvian Neogene penguins. PalAss Newsletter 81: 62-66.
I’ve just returned from the 8th International Penguin Conference and there were many excellent presentations on all manner of penguin research projects. It would be impossible to write about them all, but I will try to post a few samples of what the global community of penguin researchers has been up to lately. There are several great fossil projects that I will have to keep quite about for a few weeks or months until the “official” news is broken by the researchers involved in the form of papers, but you can rest assured that this winter should bring lots of new paleontology announcements.
First, to the presentation that most astounded me. The John Downer Productions team created a set of highly realistic robotic penguins to spy on living birds for a recent BBC documentary. Some penguins are timid around humans, and may flee when a normal camera team approaches. So, these robots allow scientists and filmmakers to get up close with the colony and capture intimate details of day to day life in a penguin colony. The robots are more than simple camcorders. Image recognition software allows them to do some amazing things, including remembering the identities of individual penguins based on their patterns of spots. This is incredibly useful to researchers who want to keep tabs on interactions between mates and other colony members.
Two of the robot penguins visited the conference and put on a demonstration that included successfully guessing the gender and age (within about 10 years) of an audience member. The robots also estimated “happiness” and “anger” levels of audience members based on smiles and scowls. Besides being great observation instruments, the robots are tough and sneaky. They can get blown over and right themselves, fall off a ledge without breaking, and even carry “egg-cams” to drop off at strategic locations. I was one of many who had their pictures taken with the Emperor robot.
Here is the trailer for the BBC special Spy in the Huddle:
This week marks the start of the 8th International Penguin Conference in Bristol. On Wednesday morning, I will be giving the keynote talk in a series of presentations about fossil penguin research. This will be a great opportunity to meet some paleontologists from Europe and South America, as well as worldwide experts on living penguin biology. There is sure to be some exciting new finds profiled at the conference, so stay tuned for reporting.