PRESS RELEASE - New Fossil Penguin from New Zealand May be the Biggest Ever

February 28, 2012

DEERFIELD, IL (February 2012) – Penguins are hot today, despite being usually found in the cold.  They've become icons of wildlife as they walked with their Happy Feet into pop-culture.  They've been popular with paleontologist as well, and new finds in New Zealand have shed light on the early fossil members of this intriguing group of birds.


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An international team, centered at Otago University, have found and described two new fossil penguin species, including what may be the tallest penguin to have ever lived.  The findings are revealed in a new article authored by Daniel Ksepka of North Carolina State University, Ewan Fordyce of Otago University and former Otago students Tatsuro Ando and Craig Jones in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


Modern penguins are known for living in the southern hemisphere and having lost their ability to fly.  Instead they use their wings to swim, and waddle up onto land to escape ice-choked seas and to raise their young.  New Zealand has the largest collection of modern penguin species, and the same is true of their fossil relatives.  This recent find helps scientists sort out some of the incredible diversity in these early forms.


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The new species, named Kairuku waitaki and Kairuku grebneffi were part of a diverse penguin community from 27 million years ago.  Kairuku (whose name means 'food diver' in the native New Zealand Maori tongue) is represented by nearly complete skeletons, which allowed scientists to determine that it had a unique form compared to other penguins, fossil or living.  These penguins were slim, with elongate flippers and stout hind limbs.  Based on the nearly complete skeleton, Kairuku grebneffi may have stood 1.3 meters (nearly 5 feet) tall, making it the tallest penguin to have lived.


Says Ksepka, "It is thrilling to see a completely new type of penguin turning up in the fossil record.  Kairuku joins a cadre of extinct forms including the "proto-penguin" Waimanu, spear-billed penguins, and tiny divers. Each new discovery expands our picture of the incredibly diverse radiation of now-extinct penguins – now surpassing 50 species."


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The fossils were actually found years ago, and are only now being described.  "The three key specimens were found serendipitously during field exploration for fossil whales and dolphins between the late 70s and early 90s. That work, and subsequent field study, places New Zealand's Waitaki Region as an important source of southern hemisphere marine vertebrates," said Ewan Fordyce, a Professor of Geology at University of Otago who discovered the penguins and organized the study.



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Fossil penguins have been studied for more than 150 years, going back to Thomas Huxley, and these new finds are some of the best in that entire history, and speak to the reason why we still find these birds so fascinating.  Says Ksepka, "New Zealand is a center of diversity for penguins today, and in the past Zealandia was even more of a penguin paradise. So far, ten different species spanning a large range of shapes and sizes have been discovered in similar aged deposits.  The warm, shallow seaways and isolated coastlines of the time would have been a perfect environment for feeding and nesting."





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Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has more than 2,300 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators and others interested in Vertebrate Paleontology. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.


Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology.

For complimentary access to the full article beginning February 29, 2012, visit:

The article appears in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(2) published by Taylor and Francis.

Ksepka, D.T., R.E. Fordyce, T. Ando, & C.M. Jones. 2012. NEW FOSSIL PENGUINS (AVES, SPHENISCIFORMES) FROM THE OLIGOCENE OF NEW ZEALAND REVEAL THE SKELETAL PLAN OF STEM PENGUINS. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(2): 235-254.

Journal Web site: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology:

Daniel T. Ksepka
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina 27695, U.S.A.
Phone: +1-973-907-0047

Ewan Fordyce
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand
Phone: +64-3-479-7510

Tatsuro Ando
Ashoro Museum of Paleontology
Konan 1 cho-me
J-089-3703 JAPAN
Phone: +81-156-25-9100

Craig T. Jones
Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences
PO Box 30368
Lower Hutt
Wellington 5011, New Zealand
Phone: +64-4-570-4858

Other Experts Not Associated with this Study

Stig Walsh
Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, National Museums Scotland
Phone: +44 (0) 23 9284 3008

Nicholas Pyenson
Curator, Smithsonian Institution
Phone: +1-202-633-1366

Julia Clarke
Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
Phone: +1-512-232-7563

Helen James
Curator, Smithsonian Institution
Phone: +1-202-633-0792

Nathan D. Smith
Postdoctoral Researcher, Field Museum of Natural History,
Phone: +1-319-321-6708

Anthony Friscia (SVP Media Liaison Committee)
University of California, Los Angeles
Dept. of Integrative Biology and Physiology
Los Angeles, CA USA
Phone: +1-310-206-6011

Image 1: Two Kairuku penguins come ashore, passing a stranded Waipatia dolphin.  Artwork by Chris Gaskin, owner and copyright owner: Geology Museum, University of Otago. Used with permission.

Image 2: Articulated flipper of Kairuku grebneffi with the flipper of extant New Zealand endemic Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) for comparison.  Photo by R. Ewan Fordyce.

Image 3:  Discovery site of Kairuku grebneffi specimen OU22065. Outcrop of the Kokoamu Greensand along the bank of the Waihao River, South Canterbury, New Zealand.  Dan Ksepka in foreground. Above the unconformity, the Otekaike Limestone is exposed. Photo by R. Ewan Fordyce.

Image 4: Discovery site of Kairuku waitaki holotype.  Outcrop of the Kokoamu Greensand along the bank of the Waihao River, South Canterbury, New Zealand.  Dan Ksepka and Daniel Thomas in foreground. Photo by R. Ewan Fordyce.

Image 5: Dan Ksepka examines a specimen of Kairuku in a display case at the Geology Museum.  The small penguin to the left is an extant Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor). Photo by R. Ewan Fordyce.

Image 6: R. Ewan Fordyce prospects for penguins in the Hakataramea Valley. Photo by Dan Ksepka.