Giant Penguin Found!

The Penguin Post has learned that scientists have uncovered fossils which reveal the ancestor of the penguin to be a fearsome beast far removed from the waddling bird in dinner-suit plumage which has endeared itself to cinema audiences. The fossils, which were found in Peru, suggest a creature that was more than 5 feet tall and weighed as much as a human. The 36 million-year-old tropical bird’s intimidating appearance was topped off with powerful arms, a chunky neck and a potentially vicious foot long beak. “It’s a monster,” said Professor Julia Clarke, of North Carolina State University, who described the fossils with her team in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The discovery of the giant bird has shaken scientists’ understanding of penguin evolution. The find indicates that penguins made the journey to equatorial regions much earlier in their evolutionary history than researchers realized. And because the penguins lived during a period when the planet was experiencing a “greenhouse” climate, the pair of species that have been discovered are challenging what researchers thought they knew about how species adapt to hotter temperatures. The giant species has been named Icadyptes salasi. If it were alive today, it would tower over the largest penguins on the planet, the nearly 4 foot tall Emperors, whose epic migration across the Antarctic wilderness to bring food to their chicks was celebrated in the film March of the Penguins. “The bone preservation is extremely good,” Professor Clarke said. The detail is so clear that researchers were able to see fine patterning on the beak of the giant penguin left by a sheet of keratin, the material that makes up feathers. The team does not have any direct evidence for the new discovery’s diet, but the wings were adapted for swimming and found in sediments laid down just off shore. Its elongated beak would have been capable of snaring large fish, but its shape is unusual. “It is distinct from anything we have in living penguins,” Professor Clarke said. Attachment points for neck muscles are also large, suggesting it had a powerful neck for spearing prey. The discovery goes against the general rule that as climatic conditions get warmer, species tend to evolve into a smaller body size. The theory is that large size is useful in the cold because it reduces the ratio of surface area to volume, making it easier to conserve heat. But Icadyptes salasi was found in a region that resembled the modern-day Atacama Desert in Chile. The find contradicts the idea that penguins did not reach equatorial regions until 4 million to 8 million years ago, well after a cooling period had set in that began to swell the polar icecaps. Today, only one species, the Humboldt penguin, is found on the coast of Peru. The team is keen to point out that although these species were adapted to the tropics, it does not mean that current penguin species will be able to adapt quickly to climate change. “Current global warming is occurring on a significantly shorter time scale,” Professor Clarke said.

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