Giant human-sized monster penguins ‘ruled’ Earth after the dinosaurs died out, scientists say

Illustration of the newly discovered penguin species darting through their watery kingdom (Image: Jacob Blokland, Flinders University)

If you’ve ever seen footage of a huge crowd of penguins huddled together during a freezing polar winter, you might understand that life can be pretty grim for these iconic birds.

But these flightless avians once dominated the Earth, holding dominion over land and water after the dinosaurs died out more than than 60 million years ago.

A new study has shed new light on an extraordinary era when penguins ‘ruled’ the planet.

Scientists said huge man-sized penguins ‘waddled on land but swam supremely in subtropical seas’.

Life was much better for the birds back then, analysis of newly-discovered fossils found on remote islands has shown.

They thrived in warm seas in a period when the waters around New Zealand were tropical or subtropical, while growing to huge sizes.

Researchers have discovered new evidence of the creatures’ reign on the far-flung Chatham Islands in the southern Pacific near New Zealand’s South Island.

During the investigation, researchers found a new species which has been called Kupoupou stilwelli.

It is believed to be the oldest known penguin with proportions close to its unfortunate modern descendants.

The bird lived between 62.5 million and 60 million years ago at a time when there was no ice cap at the South Pole.

This illustration shows how large the monster penguins might have been (Image: Canterbury Museum)

‘Next to its colossal human-sized cousins, including the recently described monster penguin Crossvallia waiparensis, Kupoupou was comparatively small – no bigger than modern King Penguins which stand just under 1.1 metres tall,’ said Jacob Blokland, who worked with Professor Paul Scofield and Associate Professor Catherine Reid, as well as Flinders palaeontologist Associate Professor Trevor Worthy on the discovery.

”Kupoupou also had proportionally shorter legs than some other early fossil penguins. In this respect, it was more like the penguins of today, meaning it would have waddled on land.

‘This penguin is the first that has modern proportions both in terms of its size and in its hind limb and foot bones (the tarsometatarsus) or foot shape.’

The animal’s scientific name acknowledges the indigenous Moriori people of the Chatham Island, with Kupoupou meaning ‘diving bird’ in Te Re Moriori.

The discovery may even link the origins of penguins themselves to the eastern region of New Zealand stretching from the Chatham Island archipelago to the eastern coast of the South Island, where other most ancient penguin fossils have been found.

University of Canterbury adjunct Professor Scofield, senior curator of natural history at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, said the paper provides ‘further support for the theory that penguins rapidly evolved shortly after the period when dinosaurs still walked the land and giant marine reptiles swam in the sea’.

‘We think it’s likely that the ancestors of penguins diverged from the lineage leading to their closest living relatives – such as albatross and petrels – during the Late Cretaceous period, and then many different species sprang up after the dinosaurs were wiped out,’ Professor Scofield says

‘It’s not impossible that penguins lost the ability to fly and gained the ability to swim after the extinction event of 66 million years ago, implying the birds underwent huge changes in a very short time. If we ever find a penguin fossil from the Cretaceous period, we’ll know for sure.’


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