Penguins Have Suffered Massive Changes After Dinosaurs’ Extinction

A new discovery shows that ancient penguins have survived the apocalypse that wiped out dinosaurs as fossil records surfaced. The animals, similar in size to a human, thrived in the Southern Hemisphere waters alongside smaller species.

The smaller kinds of penguins were allegedly about the same size to some species currently found in Antarctica.

Ancient Bird Similar in Size to Actual Penguins

A new record of a Kupoupou stilwelli has been discovered on the isolated Chatham Islands located in the southern Pacific, close to New Zealand’s South Island. The animal seems to be the oldest penguin yet discovered with a size almost similar to its modern successors.

The penguin was determined to have lived between 62.5 million and 60 million years ago, in a period that had no ice cap at the South Pole, and the waters surrounding New Zealand were either tropical or subtropical.

Jacob Blokland, a Ph.D. paleontologist of Flinders University, made the discovery after analyzing fossil skeletons found in the Chatham Islands between 2006 and 2011. He helped bring together a puzzle of an ancient penguin, an image that helps close the gap between extinct giant penguins and today’s species.

​”Next to its colossal human-sized cousins, including the recently described monster penguin Crossvallia waiparensis, Kupoupou was comparatively small—no bigger than modern King Penguins which stand just under 1.1 meters tall,”​​ said Dr. Blokland.

The paleontologist worked on the findings with Professor Paul Scofield, Associate Professor Catherine Reid, as well as Flinders specialist Associate Professor Trevor Worthy.

Rapid Evolution

Kupoupou ​had uniformly shorter legs than some of the other ancient fossil penguins discovered by now. With regard to this, it was more similar to today’s penguins, which means it would have tottered on land. This particular penguin is the first that proves to have a size, as well as similarities like its hind limb, foot bones, and foot shape to that of its modern relatives.

According to the U.S. journal Paleontologica Electronica, the animal’s name was given to acknowledge the Indigenenour Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, or Rēkohu​, as ‘Kupoupou’ means ‘diving bird’ in Te Re Moriori.

The finding may even have correlations to the origins of penguins in the eastern area of New Zealand. From the Chatham Islands archipelago to the eastern coast of the South Island, the region where other incredibly old penguin fossils have been discovered, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) away.

Adjunct Professor Paul Scofield of the University of Canterbury and Senior Curator of Natural History at the Canterbury Museum says that the research offers more support for the hypothesis that penguins had an accelerated evolution process shortly after the era when the dinosaurs still walked on land and huge marine reptiles had the sea as home.

“We think it’s likely that the ancestors of penguins diverged from the lineage leading to their closest living relatives—such as albatross and petrels—during the Late Cretaceous period, and then many different species sprang up after the dinosaurs were wiped out,” Professor Scofield says.

According to Professor Scofield, it is not impossible that penguins lost the capacity to fly and managed to learn to swim after the extinction of dinosaurs, about 66 million years ago. This would suggest that the species encountered huge changes in a relatively short period.

If paleontologists would ever find a penguin fossil dating back to the Cretaceous period, the mystery will be solved.

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