World's Oldest Penguin Fossils Suggest Birds Outlived Dinos

Sean Markey in Golden Bay, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
April 11, 2006

The oldest penguin fossils yet found suggest that at least some ancestors of modern birds survived the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.

The 58- to 62-million-year-old bones unearthed in New Zealand belong to four specimens from a previously unknown genus of ancient penguin called Waimanu.

Ewan Fordyce, a paleontologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, helped analyze the fossils.

He says the seabirds' age, combined with DNA sleuthing by colleagues, make a "strong case" that modern birds appeared well before dinosaurs died out some 65 million years ago.

"When [we] saw that penguin lineages were established by 60 or 62 million years ago, it became clear that other bird lineages, which were more remote from penguins, must have had earlier origins," he said.

The study describing the ancient penguins and the associated theory of a dino-era origin for modern birds appeared in last month's online issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Dino-Era Waterbirds

The name Waimanu comes from the Maori words wai (water) and manu (bird).

Similar in size to present-day yellow-eyed or king penguins, Waimanu penguins stood about 26 to 30 inches (65 to 76 centimeters) tall.

(See related photos of New Zealand's modern native birds.)

The ancient birds could flex their wings slightly at the elbow and, like their modern counterparts, used their wings as hydrofoils to "fly" underwater.

A government geologist found the first Waimanu penguin specimen in the mid-1980s on a rock outcrop in the Waipara region, today a wine-growing area near Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island (see map).

Continued on Next Page >>


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