Field trips are regarded as the pinnacle of school days. They’re like mini-vacations with all your friends. What could be more appealing than that? What if you discovered a brand-new species of gigantic prehistoric penguin while you were there? A group of New Zealand kids who went on a trip in 2006 may have the answer: what if you discovered a brand-new species of giant prehistoric penguin while you were there?
In a statement, former child and fossil hunter Steffan Safety stated, “It’s kind of amazing to realize that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia now.” “And it’s even a new species! The day I spent cutting it out of the rock was clearly well spent!”
So, why has a penguin that lived between 27.3 and 34.6 million years ago made headlines nearly a decade after its discovery? When the children of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club (commonly known as JUNATS) discovered the fossil in Kawhia Harbour, they realized it was significant — large and remarkably well-preserved, it was a far cry from the usual sea urchin fossils. But it wasn’t until 2017 that JUNATS handed the item to the Waikato Museum, where experts from Massey University and the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, USA, were able to examine it.
The findings, which were published today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, have lifted the tragic 2006 field trip from “fortunate” to “historical”: it turns out that the kids of JUNATS had discovered a brand-new piece of the penguin fossil record.
Dr Daniel Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Massey University, remarked, “It’s been a wonderful joy to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin.” “We understand the significance of this fossil to so many people.”
By 3D scanning the fossil and comparing the bones to digital representations of other penguin skeletons, the researchers were able to determine the penguin’s status. Although tuxedoed birds have a fossil record dating back almost as far as the dinosaurs, nothing is known about the history of huge penguins in New Zealand – though we do know they looked significantly different from their modern-day cousins.
The newly discovered penguin shares many characteristics with other ancient New Zealand penguins, and it appears to have been a catwalk model of its time: it had “much longer legs” than other species, which “would have made the penguin much taller… perhaps around 1.4 meters tall and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive,” according to Thomas.
Kairuku waewaeroa is the name given to the new species because of its lengthy limbs. Kairuku means “diver who returns with food,” and waewaeroa means “large legs,” which are both Te reo Mori words.