March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for February 2023

Giant Penguins Honor Giants in Science

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Skeletal reconstructions of the fossil penguins Kumimanu fordycei (left) and Petradyptes stonehousei (center) with a modern emperor penguin (right) for scale. Bones recovered for the fossil species are in white. Artwork by Dr. Simone Giovanardi.

This February, my colleagues and I published a paper in Journal of Paleontology honoring two legends in the field of penguin research. The paper describes fossils discovered in 55.5 to 59.5 million year old beach boulders in North Otago by New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Curator Alan Tennyson between 2016 and 2017. Alan found the penguin fossils on collecting trips, sometimes with help from his son Sam and expert fossil preparator Al Mannering. Al later painstakingly removed the rock to reveal the treasures inside the boulders, including nine partial penguin skeletons.

In 2018, I visited New Zealand and Alan showed me the a gigantic penguin humerus belonging to an unknown species. I was completely blown away! In fact I almost thought the bone must belong to another type of animal until I got a close look at it. In other drawers were eight more penguins specimens of varying sizes and degrees of completeness, six of which would ultimately be assigned to a second new species. Over the next few years, Alan and I worked with some great colleagues to study the penguins. Our colleague Dr. Daniel Thomas of Massey University used laser scanners to create digital models of the bones and compare them to other fossil species, flying diving birds like auks, and modern penguins. Then, in order to estimate the size of the new species, the team measured hundreds of modern penguin bones which Dr. Daniel Field of Cambridge University used to calculated a regression using flipper bone dimensions to predict weight. Dr. Tracy Heath and Dr. Will Pett of Iowa State University ran some Bayesian analyses to pinpoint the phylogenetic placement of the penguins, and Dr. Simone Giovardi, a recent PhD graduate from Daniel Thomas’s lab, contributed morphological comparisons and also created some excellent artwork.

The regression data indicated that the largest flipper bones belong to a penguin that tipped the scales at an astounding 340lbs. We named the new species Kumimanu fordycei in honor of Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, Professor Emeritus of University of Otago. Dr. Fordyce has played an enormous role in building New Zealand’s museum collections, publishing volumes of research, and training generations of students. Although he is most well known for his work on whales, he has also collected and studied many other marine creatures including fish, a plesiosaur, pinnipeds, and of course penguins. He is a legend in our field, but also one of the most generous mentors I have ever known. Many of the fondest memories of my career are of collecting specimens with Ewan, puzzling over fossils in his lab, and enjoying his spellbinding stories. Without Ewan’s field program, we wouldn’t even know that many iconic fossil species existed, so it is only right he have his own penguin namesake.

Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce holding a Magellanic penguin chick in Argentina. Photo by Dr. Michael Gottfried.

Multiple specimens of the second penguin species were found, providing a detailed view of the skeleton. This specie weighed in at 110lbs, smaller than Kumimanu fordycei but still well above the weight of an emperor penguin.We named the species Petradyptes stonehousei. The genus name combines the Greek “petra” for rock and “dyptes” for diver, a play on the diving bird being preserved in a boulder. “stonehousei” honors the late Dr. Bernard Stonehouse (1926-2014), a pioneer in penguin biology.

Dr. Bernard Stonehouse kindly posing with a fan (me) at the International Penguin Conference in 2013.

Dr. Stonehouse is perhaps most famous for his 1948 expedition, during which he discovered an emperor penguin colony on the Dion Islands. His group was scheduled to be picked up by ship soon afterward, but they became stranded by pack ice and were forced to spend the winter on the islands. Dubbed The Lost Eleven” by the press, the team sheltered in tents as temperatures dropped to -40°F. Stonehouse put his misfortune to good use by becoming the first person ever to observe the full breeding cycle of the emperor penguin, a major milestone in penguin biology. As someone who needs to steel himself with hot coffee before going out to fill the bird feeder on a snowy day, all I can say is that this adventure tops any field story I know by a mile.

Bernard Stonehouse left a legacy of research and mentorship that is well remembered by many penguin biologists. I was lucky to meet him at the 2013 International Penguin Conference, where Bernard and his wife Sally asked the small group of paleontologists attending the conference to dinner. It was like being invited by royalty. I recall that he drew a small map on a napkin and one of the other paleontologists snatched it up right away as a souvenir. We corresponded afterwards and I feel fortunate to have had a chance to bounce thoughts about penguin evolution back and forth with the person we all consider the “father of modern penguin biology”.

Beside writing papers, Stonehouse wrote charming books for popular audiences. My favorite quote from his writing is:

“I have often had the impression that, to penguins, man is just another penguin – different, less predictable, occasionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business.”

Over the next few days I will cover more of the science of studying fossil penguins and what we learned from the news species, but a little background on the species honorees seemed like the best place to start.

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 9, 2023 at 5:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized