Flightless Elder God: Ancient Carnivorous 6'8" Penguin Was Like Something From Lovecraft

Tuesday, 20 February 2018 - 10:01AM
Science News
Tuesday, 20 February 2018 - 10:01AM
Flightless Elder God: Ancient Carnivorous 6'8" Penguin Was Like Something From Lovecraft
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Image credit: composite created by images found on Pixabay/Public Domain
What if we told you that long ago, millions of years in the past, giant penguins ruled the land?

Sure, everyone's always eager to talk about the age of the dinosaurs (while pretending that the T-Rex wasn't just an enormous turkey), but the late Paleocene period – five million years after an asteroid wrecked the Cretaceous – saw the rise of several different species of giant penguins, as they waddled around while looking both absolutely adorable and more than a little terrifying.

A new paper published in Nature Communications details a recently-discovered giant aquatic bird which has been named the Kumimanu biceae. This enormous penguin was actually a fairly "modest" size for the time, measuring 1.7 meters or 5'10" according to fossil records. Considering that the average human height is slightly shorter, this bird would tower over the majority of people alive today.

This penguin lived on the shores of what was then part of Antarctica, but which has since drifted upwards to become New Zealand. Curiously enough, it didn't live in the type of climate we associate with penguins today. The weather was relatively balmy (all things considered).

Perhaps, though, you're not hugely impressed by a penguin that is merely the size of a regular person. Maybe you feel that, unless a penguin stands over six feet tall, it's not worth worrying about.

In that case, bear in mind that Antarctica in the Paleocene period was also home to the Palaeeudyptes klekowskii, a truly enormous penguin that grew as tall as 6'8", clearing a full two meters in height, and weighing in at 250 lbs.

What's interesting is not the fact that these birds ever got this large. Despite being very cute, penguins are hardy creatures that are good at throwing their weight around. The real question, according to study author Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, is why these enormous birds died out:

Opening quote
"Actually, it is often observed that flightless birds become very large. One rather has to answer the question why there are no giant penguins today. It now appears that giant size evolved early and multiple times in penguins. The fossil also shows how little we actually know about the evolution of penguins, even though more is known about the fossil history of penguins than that of many other avian groups."
Closing quote

Apparently, there were smaller penguins in existence when these giant creatures were also swimming around – so this isn't a case of a big species slowly growing smaller over time. Something significant must have changed in the environment to make the larger penguins die out while their tiny cousins were able to thrive.

There's no clear answer yet as to what that might be, but fossils like the ones recently unearthed hold the key to learning the fate of the giant monster penguins.
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