March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Posts Tagged ‘Penguin paleontologists

Fossil Whale and Penguin Researcher Honored

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Recently my colleague Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce received a prestigious national award, the Hutton Medal.  The Hutton Medal is awarded each year by the Royal Society of New Zealand to recognize outstanding research in plant, animal or earth science.  Discipline rotates over a three year cycle, and this year was an “earth” year.  The medal is named for Captain Frederick Wollaston Hutton, an early supporter of Charles Darwin and describer of many species of New Zealand fish, invertebrates and birds. Among the past recipients of the award is Walter Reginald Brook Oliver, who wrote the seminal book New Zealand Birds.  He named the fossil species Pachydyptes ponderosus (probably the heaviest penguin ever to have lived) and was also the first to formally name the Snares Penguin (Eudyptes robustus).

It is very welcome news to hear that Dr. Fordyce has received this award, for no one has contributed more to our understanding of extinct penguins from New Zealand. Over the years, he has discovered and collected dozens of important specimens and authored papers on the species Waimanu manneringi, Waimanu tuatahi, and Kaiika maxwelli I had the distinct pleasure of working together with him on the description of Kairuku waitaki and Kairuku grebneffi. Although Dr. Fordyce has contributed heartily to the field collection and scientific study of fossil penguins, he is more widely known in scientific realms for his research on cetaceans. In the past, New Zealand was home to many unusual dolphins and whales, including primitive “proto-baleen” whales that still retained proper teeth, some of the most ancient baleen whale species, a pug-nosed dolphin, and menacing shark-toothed dolphins. You can read more about these wonderful seafaring creatures here. Many of these fascinating fossils impress children in museums and give paleontologists data to ponder thanks to Dr. Fordyce’s work.

So, a hearty congratulations is due.  It is not every day that one wins a medal with both a kiwi and a tuatara engraved upon it, and it is certainly a moment to savor.

_DSC3230 Ewan

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

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Will the real Nordenskjöld please step forward?

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Photograph of the Antarctica trapped in sea ice. From: Mill, H.R. The Siege of the South Pole.

Last post we touched on a fossil penguin that I incorrectly assumed was named after Artic explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld. As reader John Carlson kindly pointed out, the penguin is actually named after Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld’s nephew Otto Nordenskjöld.  Otto, also a polar explorer, sailed on the ship Antarctic. The ship was captained by Carl Anton Larsen, who incidentally also has a penguin named after him (Delphinornis larsenii).  In one of their adventures, Otto and his party were stranded on Snow Hill Island when the Antarctic failed to pick them up on the scheduled day – with good reason, having been crushed in ice. Larsen and the crew were forced to find themselves shelter on another island.  After enduring great deprivations (including, grimly from our point of view, a steady diet of penguins), both groups were rescued by the Argentine naval ship Uruguay.

Written by Dan Ksepka

December 17, 2012 at 5:35 pm

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Paraptenodytes – Simpson’s Great Discovery

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In 1933 the famous paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson led an expedition to collect fossils around the town of Trelew in Patagonia. At this time, Simpson was still a young man. Later he would become one of the “four horseman” of the New Synthesis of evolutionary theory, bringing the deep time perspective of paleontology into a new perspective on evolution unifying natural selection and genetics.  In 1933, though, he was focused just on the excitement of collecting fossils.  Near Trelew, the Chubut River meets the Atlantic today.  It seems that this area also comprised a rich estuarine ecosystem in the past and both terrestrial and aquatic animals gathered, lived, and died here, quite often making it into the fossil record. During the trip, the team collected many mammal fossils but also repeatedly came upon penguin bones.  These were not the focus of the trip, but no good paleontologist would leave well-preserved fossils in the field regardless of what type of animal they belong too.  More than a hundred scattered bones of average sized penguins were gathered up, but one find in particular changed the face of penguin paleontology.  This specimen was a roughly 20-25 million year old, nearly complete skeleton of a single bird – a rather large one by modern standards, approaching King Penguin size.  Most of the leg, part of the flipper, many vertebrae were intact. Most importantly, the skull was there too – the first time a skull had ever been found for a fossil penguin.

At the conclusion of the successful field season, the team returned to the US with a bounty of fossils to prepare and study.  Simpson was, as mentioned, a mammal paleontologist, more interested in marsupials and such than in birds.  Thus, he attempted to pass the fossil penguin skeleton to one of the American Museum of Natural History’s many ornithologists.  None, however, took him up on the offer.  At the time, ornithologist’s were absorbed in details of the feathers and beaks of birds and had little interest in the bones of a penguin. Collections of stuffed skins were emphasized over osteological collections at the time (and still are in many museums) and so most ornithologists probably had scant appreciation for skeletal remains of any kind of bird.

Around this time, World War II interrupted George Simpson’s pleasant work on fossils and he served several years in the Army as a staff officer to Patton.  By his own account, this was a low in his career and he longed to get back to scientific pursuits. With the conclusion of the war, he happily returned to the American Museum of Natural History.  Simpson found the penguin still unstudied, and tired of the poor bird languishing set about studying it himself.  This resulted in a monumental 1946 paper titled simply “Fossil Penguins”.  The skeleton was identified as belonging to the species Paraptenodytes antarcticus, previously known only from a few bones.  Besides describing the skeleton, Simpson’s monograph revised the dozens of fossil species that had been named by this time (discarding many ill-founded ones) and definitively traced the ancestry of penguins to a flighted bird, laying to rest some bizarre theories about flightless terrestrial birds or even reptiles as penguin ancestors.

George Gaylord Simpson's specimen of Paraptenodytes antarcticus, with reconstructed body outline. Some bones have been omitted for logistical reasons.

Simpson’s Paraptenodytes specimen was the key that opened the door to the modern study of penguin evolution.  Up to this time, almost all the penguin fossils that had been found were isolated bones.  This made it difficult to reconstruct what these extinct species might have looked like and how similar or different their lifestyles were from living penguins.  Paraptenodytes antarcticus gave us the first good look at an extinct penguin species.  The species certainly had a strong bite compared to living penguins, based on the insertions areas on the skull for the muscles that work the jaw.  The flipper is rather slender and intermediate between Eocene penguins and modern species in most aspects of the underwater flight muscle placements.  The leg is pretty standard, with the typical short stubby feet of today’s penguins.   Overall, compared to the older species known from Antarctica and New Zealand, Paraptenodytes was closer to having a modern skeletal plan. Morphologies of the skull were interpreted by Simpson as evidence of a close relationship between the Sphenisciformes (the penguin clade) and  the Procellariiformes (albatrosses and allies), a hypothesis that is well-supported by DNA evidence today.

This work was not to be Simpson’s only venture in to the world of fossils penguins.  Penguin are addicting, you see, and Simpson subsequently wrote around 20 additional scientific papers on penguins, named a dozen new species and visited every one of the living penguin species in the wild.  So by chance discovery (and the recalcitrance of the ornithologist’s at the museum), one of paleontology’s greatest minds was brought to bear on the evolution of this wonderful group.

Written by Dan Ksepka

May 19, 2010 at 11:08 am

Dr. Marples and His Penguins

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Dr. Brian J. Marples was one of the great contributors to the study of penguin evolution during the 20th century.  Marples was a true polymath, one of the all-purpose scientists of yesteryear who are so rare today.  He studied and published on many disparate topics including spiders from throughout the South Pacific, the life habits of New Zealand birds, the circulatory systems of fish, extinct whale brain endocasts, and of course fossil penguins.

Limestone cliffs in North Canterbury, New Zealand - home of spiders, resting place of ancient whales and penguins.

Marples actually found many of the penguin fossils he studied while searching for spiders, the main focus of much of his life’s work.  A spider expert, he had a particular interest in trapdoor spiders.  These spiders are common in rocky environments, including greensand and limestone cliffs (like those above).  These spiders inhabit burrows with home-made “doors” that they leap from to ambush and capture passing prey.  Traveling around the vicinity of Duntroon, a settlement in the South Island, Marples collected trapdoor spiders in jars as he worked on mapping their geographical distributions and describing their anatomy. In the process, he regularly ran into fossil bone – often from penguins and whales.  According to accounts (see link below), he and his students often livened up the Duntroon Hotel’s bar after collecting expeditions.  I’ve lifted my feet to the fire in the same staff lounge Marples no doubt frequented at the University, but I can only guess at the boisterous activities generated by placing pints on top of the table and jars of spiders underneath.

The fossils collected from the Duntroon cliffs revolutionized our understanding of ancient penguins.  Previously, many fossil penguin bones had been collected but associated skeletons from individual animals were very rare.  Marples penguins gave us the first glimpse at what the skeletons large Oligocene penguins of 25 million years past might have looked like whole (with the notable exception that nearly all the skull bones were lost).  In paleontology, it is common practice to name newly discovered species in honor of someone who has contributed to the discovery or study of that species – for example the person who found the fossil, a volunteer who helped with the field or museum work, or a respected expert on the group of interest.  Marples has been recognized three times in this manner.

Interestingly, Dr, Marples himself actually described the fossils that bear his name.  It is of course in bad taste (and in fact forbidden) to name a fossil after yourself.  Marples certainly did not attempt such a crass act.  At the time he found the penguins, he believed two of them belonged to the already-named species Palaeeudyptes antarcticus and Platydyptes novaezealandiae, and that the third represented a new species of the South American genus Palaeospheniscus Palaeospheniscus novaezealandiae.   This later turned out to be an overly conservative interpretation.   The first two fossils were later found to be distinct species and the third found not to belong in the genus Palaeospheniscus.

George Gaylord Simpson later changed the genus name to Marplesornis (“Marples’ bird”) in recognition of these differences, and in honor of Marples’ contributions to penguin paleontology.  The other two fossils also bear Marples-based species honorifics – Pierce Brodkorb dubbed one set of large penguin fossils from the Burnside Mudstone Quarry near Otago University Palaeeudyptes marplesi and  Simpson named a smaller set of remains from cliffs of  Duntroon Platydyptes marplesi. Palaeeudyptes marplesi was a large, stout fellow though unfortunately we have only a few limb bones and vertebrae.  Platydyptes marplesi, seen below, was a moderate sized penguin with really wide flipper bones – the genus name means “wide diver” and has turned out to be one of the more common penguins of the Oligocene of New Zealand.  A unique arrangement of the articulation between the wing and shoulder suggests it was a strong underwater flier, but the mechanics are still under study.

Holotype of Platydyptes marplesi, one of Marples penguins. The limestone block holds most of the pectoral girdle and wings, which have been exposed at the surface.

Marplesornis novaezealandiae is perhaps the most interesting of the three species.  According to analyses of fossil penguin relationships, Marplesornis represents the last lineage of penguins to branch off the evolutionary tree before the radiation of modern penguins began. This penguin was about the size of a living King Penguin and had large spaces for the jaw muscles on the back of the skull, like modern penguins that eat fish.  It supports the hypothesis that only once modern penguins had evolved did the group begin experimenting with more krill-heavy planktonic diets.

So, those are the three penguins.   For more on spiders and other facets of Dr. Marple, check out the Vanished World website:

Written by Dan Ksepka

January 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

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