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Science Tuesday, February 28th 2012 at 5:01 pm

Researchers Complete Skeleton of Enormous Ancient Penguin

Dr. Dan Ksepka from North Carolina State University is fascinated by penguins, but has taken a particular shine to the ancient Kairuku penguin. Originally discovered in 1977 by Dr. Ewan Fordyce, the fossilized remains of Kairuku hinted at an aquatic bird of enormous stature. Now, decades after its discovery, Ksepka and his colleuges have completed a Kairuku skeleton and figure that the bird stood at an impressive at four-foot two-inches.

Using the remains of two incomplete skeletons, and looking to the King Penguin for reference, Ksepka was able to piece Kairuku back together. The result was a tall, sleek bird with with extremely long beak and flippers. Its stature would mean that it would stand at least a full two inches above the modern-day Emperor Penguin, the largest living penguin.

Amazingly, the proportions of Kairuku hinted it was even larger. From the North Carolina State University press release:

“Kairuku was an elegant bird by penguin standards, with a slender body and long flippers, but short, thick legs and feet,” says Ksepka. “If we had done a reconstruction by extrapolating from the length of its flippers, it would have stood over 6 feet tall. In reality, Kairuku was around 4-feet-2 inches tall or so.”

Part of the reason why an extrapolation of Kairuku might be so misleading is because the bird was unique in its evolution. Though it was one of five penguin species that plied the waters of ancient (and then mostly submerged) New Zealand, there are no living penguins related to Kairuku. Ksepka told the Scientific America, “It’s cool to see a new type of penguin, and it highlights the fact that this was really a diverse ecosystem of penguins.”

While these enormous, powerful predators are just fossils today, it might change how we view their modern cousins. At least in the sense of making them a little less cute, and a little bit more threatening.

(NCSU News, Wired, Scientific American)

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