Giant penguins with very long legs and a lengthy needle-like beak roamed around New Zealand around 30 million years ago and school children were the ones who unearthed this newly identified species.
The fossil was actually found back in 2006 by children who were in Kawhia Harbour on a Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club fossil hunting field trip. However, when they noticed something sticking out of the ground, they initially thought that it was an old boat anchor or possibly a rusty propeller. Then in 2017, it was given to Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato and that’s when researchers from the Massey University began studying it.
After conducting extensive analysis on it for about three years, they realized that it was not a boat part but instead a new species of Waikato giant penguin that they have named Kairuku waewaeroa. They analyzed the fossil by using 3D scans and compared their findings to other penguin bones from different parts of the world. In an interview with Stuff, PhD student Simone Giovanardi explained what they found, “For this fossil we found that it’s relatively similar to term of characteristics to other South Island penguin, called Kairuku Penguin.”
While the Kairuku genus had long wings and short legs, the Kairuku waewaeroa had much longer legs as described by Zoology Senior Lecturer Dr. Daniel Thomas, “These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 meters tall (4.6 feet), and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.”
Based on their analysis, the researchers believe that the Kairuku waewaeroa lived between 34.6 and 27.3 million years ago. Their research was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology where it can be read in full.
Giovanardi went on to say that the fossil is a “...special discovery” and it will provide researchers with valuable information regarding the evolution and habits of Zealandia penguins. In fact, it is the “...most complete fossil of an ancient North Island penguin suggesting that maybe there’s more to uncover in the Waikato.” There haven’t been many fossils discovered in the Waikato and Taranaki as the majority of them were uncovered in Otago and Canterbury.
Pictures of the fossil as well as what the Kairuku waewaeroa would have looked like can be seen here.