March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

North Island Giant Penguin on Display

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A remarkably complete giant penguin is now on display at the Waikato Museum in New Zealand. This penguin was discovered not by professional paleontologists from a museum or university, but by the Hamilton Junior Naturalist (JUNATS), a group of young scouts.  The penguin bones were spotted embedded in the rocky shoreline, awash in the shallow waves. According to the report, the JUNATS originally though they had come across “an old rusty propeller”. Indeed, the orange-brown colors of the bone have the appearance of distressed iron, lending to their charm. Once their mentors established that the group had a fossil on their hands, an excavation effort began. You can see the process in the video below.

Now, the fossil is in the Waikato Museum curated by Salina Ghazally, which includes some neat accompaniments such as a touchscreen interactive with 3D bone scans.  Experts including Dr. Daniel Thomas are investigating the bones too, to determine their affinities. This penguin is important because although New Zealand is the world capital in fossil penguin diversity, almost all of the fossils that have been described were discovered on the South Island. The new fossil is the best ever discovered on the North Island and will be key in establishing how penguin species overlapped or differed in the two regions millions of years ago. I had the chance to see this superb fossil in 2011, and it is well worth the trip.  Like my own home museum, the Bruce Museum, the Waikato Museum hosts art, science and history exhibitions, so there is always something new to see.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 18, 2015 at 9:24 am

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King Penguins and Ice Ages

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King Penguins and Emperor Penguins share a similar appearance. In fact, the poor King Penguins in the Central Park Zoo are called Emperors by roughly 99% of the visitors I have overheard talking about them (also overheard: one child told his mother than penguins definitely know about Captain America). Yet, Kings and Emperors have very different environmental preferences. Whereas Emperors breed on sea ice sheets, Kings require sites that are ice-free year-round to carry out their unique breeding cycle, which spans over a year from egg-laying to fledging of the juveniles.


Possession island (red pin) is today well north of the limits of winter sea ice, but would have been ice-bound in the winter during the Last Glacial Maximum.

penguin pop

Estimates of Possession Island King Penguin population over time (red lines) compared to temperature (black lines) inferred from ice cores. From Trucchi et al. (2014).

A recent study by Dr. Emiliano Trucchi and colleagues looked at the genetic structure of Kings from Possession Island. Possession Island is part of the Crozet Archipelgo in the Indian Ocean, where roughly half of the world’s population of King Penguins lives. These data revealed that the population in this region was very low about 20,000 years ago.

Why might this be? At 20,000 years before present, the Earth was locked in a cold period known as the Last Glacial Maximum (often referred to as the Ice Age). In North America glaciers extended right down to New Jersey. In the Southern Hemisphere, winter sea ice extended far north of the modern day limits, enveloping many islands that stand in open water all year round today, including Possession Island. This would presumably make it impossible for King Penguins to successfully breed on many of the islands they favor today. So what happened to all those penguins? One possibility raised by the authors is that they moved North to ice-free beaches in places like New Zealand. This hypothesis is supported by a few tantalizing fossils that suggest Aptenodytes penguins once occurred in New Zealand (and maybe even South Africa).

As climate warmed and sea ice retreated, King Penguins were able to reclaim sites like Possession Island as breeding colonies. This led to a marked increase in the Crozet archipelago population, as shown by the DNA analyses. While it may seem like this particular group of penguins benefited from melting ice 20,000 years ago, playing the warming tape forward raises a troubling specter. Other studies have shown reproductive rates in the modern Crozet Archipelago King Penguin populations have been negatively impacted by increased sea temperatures because warmer temperatures force the penguins to swim farther from their nests to find food-rich cold waters, requiring more energy use and increasing the time at sea.


Trucchi E, Gratton P, Whittington JD, Cristofari R, Le Maho Y, Stenseth NC, Le Bohec C. 2014 King penguin demography since the last glaciation inferred from genome-wide data. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20140528.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 12, 2015 at 12:11 pm

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Happy World Penguin Day

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Here is a heart-warming image for World Penguin Day.  Australia’s oldest man, 109 year-old Alfred Date, knitted a series of heavy but tiny sweaters for one of Australia’s cutest residents: the Little Blue Penguin.  Oil-slicked penguins had arrived at shore in need of the sweater to keep the, warm and stop them from ingesting oil while trying to preen their feathers. Many people would love to knit sweaters for penguins, but as a matter of fact so many were created that the center has stopped accepting them. Alfred has re-directed his tiny-sweater making skills to help human infants.

Read the full story by Jenni Ryall here.

Written by Dan Ksepka

April 25, 2015 at 8:01 pm

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Inkayacu is now a stamp!

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Sending some mail from Peru? What better way to show your love of Peruvian fossils than slapping an Inkayacu paracasensis stamp on the parcel! Inkayacu is an extinct penguin species most well known for its fine fossil feathers. This amazing discovery is now honored with an official stamp from the Peruvian postal service. At 10 Nuevo Sol (about $3 US), this stamp should be good for a pretty large packet.  Between this and the Kairuku coin, fossil penguins have really been basking in official government recognition as of late. per201301l

Written by Dan Ksepka

April 1, 2015 at 11:03 am

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Maremma Dogs: Defenders of Penguins

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It’s impossible to study fossil penguins without becoming keenly aware of the plight of their modern brethren. While I have a professional interest in expanding the pantheon of extinct penguins, I prefer the joy of a new fossil discovery to the heartbreak of watching an extant species march toward oblivion. Global penguin diversity is at a low ebb, which makes each living species all the more precious.One charming success story is the Middle Island Maremma conservation project. Australia’s Little Blue Penguins (also known as Fairy Penguins) are under assault in many areas by feral dogs and foxes.  An innovative program uses the Maremma Sheepdog to defend nesting penguins. Warning – some images may be dangerously cute.

You can read more here:–749876261.html

Also, check out this video from the Warrnambool City Council.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 17, 2015 at 4:12 pm

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Kairuku is now legal tender

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Kairuku has made it into the mint. This graceful extinct penguin species was described in 2012 by a team that included R. Ewan Fordyce, Tatsuro Ando, Craig Jones, and myself. Each year, the New Zealand post office mints an official annual coin.  Kairuku coins are pure silver and have a legal face value of $5. However, getting one for $5 would be a real steal because they are a limited run and are priced at $129. For the die-hard March of the Fossil Penguin fan, the coins are available at the New Zealand Post website.  Only 1500 have been made. Kairuku_Penguin-NZ-Annual-Coin_Prod

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 17, 2015 at 9:46 am

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3D scans of penguin bones

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Today we have a special guest post by Dr. Daniel Thomas of Massey University, master of penguin pigments and  longtime collaborator on African penguins and penguin counter-current heat exchangers.

The wings bones of a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) have been 3D scanned.

The wing bones of a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) have been 3D scanned.

Imagine you have travelled to a remote location and have discovered a fossil penguin bone – your first question will almost certainly be, ‘what species does this bone belong to?’ To find your answer you will need to compare your fossil to bones from other penguins, which will let you know if it belongs to a known species or if you have discovered a new fossil penguin. This was the scenario that Dan Ksepka and I encountered in South Africa, and we were fortunate to have access to the bone collection in Iziko Museum, Cape Town. While we were able to make most of our comparisons at Iziko, there were a few important comparisons that would have to wait for visits to other collections. Every museum can’t have every bone after all.

But what if you had digital versions of bones to work with? What if you could virtually borrow Museum specimens? A 3D scan of a bone has major advantages over photos as you can see the bone from any angle you wish, you can study the bone across a range of scales, and as strange as this may sound, you can view the morphology of the bone without being distracted by lighting or surface colouration. You could store your comparative collection on a laptop or in the cloud, and take it wherever there was electricity and/or internet access.

It’s an intriguing idea, and if you haven’t already done so, check out the incredible 3D scanning work that paleontologist Nick Pyenson has been doing at the Smithsonian Institution.

In recent years 3D scanning has become cheaper and more accessible. There are drawbacks to producing a 3D digital collection of course – it can take a long time to produce each file and you need specialised software + equipment + knowledge to produce a high-quality replica – but I think the idea of producing a 3D digital collection has promise.

This is why I have started scanning the bones of a little blue penguin (the species most common in my native Auckland, New Zealand). High-fidelity models of a left humerus, a left radius and a left ulna have been produced so far. A full set of wing bones is also available, but at lower resolution. These models are hosted on Sketchfab so they are free to view and they don’t require specialised software or browser plugins. You can check them out here: or!3d/cdvz

The left humerus from a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). The 3D digital model can be viewed on Sketchfab.

The left humerus from a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). The 3D digital model can be viewed on Sketchfab.

I want a digital collection of bones available for my own research, and I am hoping that other researchers will find them useful as well.

Now… imagine travelling to a remote location and discovering a fossil penguin bone. You open your laptop and scroll through your 3D digital collections. Have you made a new discovery?

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 3, 2015 at 6:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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