Young explorers discover giant penguin species in New Zealand

Young explorers discover giant penguin species in New Zealand

A group of young intrepid explorers could not have realised that a seemingly normal trip at a Summer Camp in 2006 could change the lives of paleontologists around the world after 15 years!  

According to reports, in 2006 a group of school children on a Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club (JUNATS) fossil hunting field trip in Kawhia Harbour, New Zealand, led by the club’s fossil expert Chris Templer, discovered the bones of a giant fossil penguin. 

Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons. The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role. The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians].”

Researchers from Massey University have described the enormous fossilised penguin as a new species in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The oldest penguin fossils found in Aotearoa date back to the era of the dinosaurs. Fossil penguins from Zealandia (ancient Aotearoa) are mainly found in Otago and Canterbury, although recent finds in Taranaki and Waikato are significant. The researchers visited Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato to examine ancient penguin fossils. They compared the fossil to computerised representations of bones from across the globe using 3D scanning.

The team may also 3D scan the fossil and print it for the Hamilton Junior naturalists as a token of appreciation since the club had gifted the penguin fossil to the Waikato Museum in 2017.

Dr Daniel Thomas, a Senior Lecturer in Zoology from Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences, says the fossil is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old and is from a time when much of the Waikato was under water. “The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs, which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – for ‘long legs’ in Te reo Maori . The long legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive,” Dr Thomas explained

“It’s been a real privilege to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin. We know how important this fossil is to so many people,” he adds.

It is something that Mike Safey, President of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, believes the youngsters who took part in it will remember for the rest of their lives. “It was a rare privilege for the kids in our club to have the opportunity to discover and rescue this enormous fossil penguin. We always encourage young people to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. There’s plenty of cool stuff out there just waiting to be discovered.”

Steffan Safey, who was present in both the discovery and rescue missions said, “It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it’s a new species, even! The existence of giant penguins in New Zealand is scarcely known, so it’s really great to know that the community is continuing to study and learn more about them. Clearly, the day spent cutting it out of the sandstone was well spent!”

Babar Siddiqui

Creative by nature and adventurous by choice, Babar, Features Editor of TheBrew.ae, enjoys indulging in the simple pleasures of life. If not found penning articles on environment, culture and technology, he enjoys spending time pondering in the midst of nature.

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