Science

Schoolchildren discover new penguin species

Researchers used 3D scanning and compared the fossil with digital versions of bones from around the world.

A giant fossilised penguin discovered by schoolchildren has been revealed as a new species of the animal.

Penguins have a fossil record reaching almost as far back as the age of the dinosaurs, and the most ancient of these penguins have been discovered in New Zealand.

Fossil penguins from Zealandia (ancient New Zealand) are mostly known from Otago and Canterbury although discoveries have recently been made in Taranaki and Waikato.

In 2006 a group of schoolchildren on a Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club fossil hunting field trip in Kawhia Harbour, New Zealand, led by the club’s fossil expert Chris Templer, discovered the bones of a giant fossil penguin.

Researchers from Massey University and Bruce Museum, in the US, visited Waikato Museum in Hamilton to analyse the fossil.

They used 3D scanning and compared the fossil with digital versions of bones from around the world.

They also produced a 3D-printed replica of the fossil for the Hamilton Junior naturalists.

Dr Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology from Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences, said the fossil is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old and from a time when much of the Waikato was under water.

He added: “The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago, but has much longer legs, which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – te reo Maori for ‘long legs’.

“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.”

Dr Thomas continued: “The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role.

“The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki (guardians).”

Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, said: “It was a rare privilege for the kids in our club to have the opportunity to discover and rescue this enormous fossil penguin.”

The research led by PhD student Simone Giovanardi, with Dr Daniel Ksepka, Bruce Museum and Dr Daniel Thomas, Massey University, is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

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