Tag Archives: Zealand

3D model.

Fossil Friday: leg bones lead to extinct giant penguin in New Zealand

Science confirms: giant penguins exist(ed).

An amateur fossil find last year — large bird leg bones — confirm that giant penguins lived on New Zealand’s South Island millions of years ago.

Leg Bones.

Overview of the fossilized leg bones. Black scale bar is 50mm (~2in).
Image credits Gerald Mayr et al., (2019), AAJP.

Big Bird

The fossil “provides further evidence that penguins attained a very large size early in their evolutionary history,” according to the authors.

The bones belonged to a 80-kilogram bird that could grow to nearly 1.6 meters (63 inches) high, according to a new paper describing the fossils. Christened Crossvallia waiparensis, it hunted off New Zealand‘s coast in the Paleocene era, 66-56 million years ago.

It would make it roughly four times heavier and 40cm taller than the modern Emperor penguin, the researchers add.

3D model.

A life size 3D model of Crossvallia waiparensis.
Image credits Canterbury Museum.

New Zealand isn’t a stranger to extinct big birds. Between Haast’s eagle, with its three-meter wingspan and the flightless moa, which grew up to 3.6-meters tall, these beasts roamed both the land and the sky.

So there has been speculation that a species of large penguins also evolved here to take advantage of marine ecosystems — which the present findings prove correct.

“It further reinforces our theory that penguins attained great size early in their evolution,” says Canterbury Museum researcher Vanesa De Pietri, adding that this is the second giant penguin from the Paleocene era found in the area.

These ‘mega-penguins’ were likely driven extinct by the emergence of other large marine predators such as seals and toothed whales.

The paper “Leg bones of a new penguin species from the Waipara Greensand add to the diversity of very large-sized Sphenisciformes in the Paleocene of New Zealand” has been published in the journal Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.

Kea parrot.

Human-driven extinction cost New Zealand 50 million years’ worth of bird evolution

The arrival of humans definitely wasn’t the most fortunate thing to ever happen to New Zealand.

Kea parrot.

Kea parrot, an endangered species that’s native to New Zealand.
Image via Pixabay.

New research shows that half of the island’s bird species have gone extinct since humans arrived. The team estimates it would take approximately 50 million years to recover the same number of bird species.

Gone with the dodo

“The conservation decisions we make today will have repercussions for millions of years to come,” says Luis Valente of Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and the paper’s lead author.

“Some people believe that if you leave nature alone it will quickly recuperate, but the reality is that, at least in New Zealand, nature would need several million years to recover from human actions — and perhaps will never really recover.”

While the number of lost or threatened bird species often has been quantified, the team explains, the broad-scale evolutionary consequences of human impact on island biodiversity rarely have been measured.

Valente says that the biodiversity levels observed today are the result of millions of years of evolutionary time, and that extinctions caused by humans erase this history. So, for their new study, the team developed a new method to estimate how long it would take for a particular closed ecosystem (i.e. island) to regain the species it lost to human activity.

New Zealand happened to be an ideal case to apply and demonstrate this new method, spawning the present study.

“The anthropogenic wave of extinction in New Zealand is very well documented, due to decades of paleontological and archaeological research,” Valente says.

“Also, previous studies have produced dozens of DNA sequences for extinct New Zealand birds, which were essential to build datasets needed to apply our method.”

The team used computer models to simulate a range of human-induced extinction scenarios and see how the ecosystem fared following these.  All in all, they report that it would take approximately 50 million years to recover the number of species lost since humans first arrived in New Zealand.

If all species currently under threat are allowed to go extinct, they add, it would require about 10 million years of evolutionary time to return to the numbers of species today. However, not all is lost.

“The conservation initiatives currently being undertaken in New Zealand are highly innovative and appear to be efficient and may yet prevent millions of years of evolution from further being lost,” Valente says.

In the future, the team plans to estimate evolutionary return times for several other islands worldwide and see if any risk losing more evolutionary time. They also want to find out which anthropogenic factors play the most significant role in determining those losses.

The paper “Deep Macroevolutionary Impact of Humans on New Zealand’s Unique Avifauna” has been published in the journal Current Biology.