March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Did Warham’s Penguin Survive into the 19th Century

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120017133Eudyptes warhami montage_0

Warham’s penguin / Chatham Island crested penguin. Montage of skeletal elements. Chatham Islands. Image © Te Papa by Jean-Claude Stahl. From http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz (click for original)

We recently introduced the extinct Warham’s Penguin, Eudyptes warhami. Our research team hypothesized this penguin was wiped out when humans arrived in the Chathams Archipelago over 700 years ago. There is good evidence for this, as some of the bones were found in middens (scrap heaps left behind at food preparation sites). So, we are sure that Moriori people encountered the penguins.

However, what if the penguins hung on until later colonists arrived?  The British ship HMS Chatham explored the archipelago in 1791. Captain William R. Broughton claimed possession of the islands for Great Britain – no matter than people had already been living there for centuries! Captain Broughton named the islands after the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham.

This “discovery” brought tragedy to the islands. Whalers and sealers began visiting the islands, bringing diseases. Then, in 1835 a group of nearly one thousand Māori arrived from mainland New Zealand. Soon after arriving they attacked the Moriori, killing hundreds and enslaving many of the survivors. Less than two hundred of the entire population of Moriori are believed to have survived.

By 1842, the Chatham Islands were officially annexed and made part of New Zealand and – long belatedly – the Moriori were released from slavery in 1863. By this time, Europeans had also established themselves on the islands and here we find an interesting written account of a penguin.

W.T.L. Travers read a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society on September 11th, 1872, which is recorded in the Philosophical Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. In this paper, he reported on a number of birds collected on the Chatham Islands by his son, H.H. Travers. Many were specimens, but one was a penguin that was brought back alive. Travers (1872:221) reported: “I obtained and brought to New Zealand a live specimen of this bird, which had come ashore to moult”.

Today, no other species of crested penguins lives on the Chatham Islands, though several occur as occasionally as vagrants. Thus, Travers note about moulting is tantalizing. If the bird was moulting on the island, it may well have bred there as well. Perhaps Travers son had picked up one of the last Warham’s penguins in the world? We may never know, as the penguin is long dead and gone, and no photographs, feathers, or other remains seem to have been saved.

How did the penguin fare? Apparently it survived for several weeks without food while aboard the ship, but then took to eating fish and raw meat from the hands of its captures. By Travers  (1872:221) account, the bird became quite tame around humans but was a bully to the other birds in its pen: “Though generally considered stupid, no doubt from its appearance, it was extremely cunning. When placed at night in an enclosure with some poultry it became master of the situation, its harsh cry and powerful beak striking terror into the other occupants”.

So how does the fossil evidence come into play? So far it cannot provide conclusive evidence for the age of the last Warham’s penguin as we don’t really know if any of the skeletons found so far were from the last days of the species. But, some of the fossil bones were found in deposits mixed with items like glass beads, which would have only been available from the time Europeans visited onward. However, rabbit burrows have disturbed these deposits and so it is possible older bones and younger archeological items were jumbled up together.

Can this mystery ever be resolved? I certainly hope so. Radiocarbon dating could provide evidence that some of the bones of Eudyptes warhami date to more recent times. So far, none of yielded recent dates, but there are always more fossils to be discovered.

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Written by Dan Ksepka

April 25, 2019 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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