New Species Of Extinct Giant Penguin Discovered

Scientists report finding the fossilized remains of a new species of giant penguin in a Peruvian desert. Paleontologist Julia Clarke of the University of Texas, Austin describes what these huge birds looked like and how the new finding can help explain penguin evolution.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you think about penguins, you probably imagine those birds, you know, that waddle around Antarctica in their black-and-white tuxedoes.

But scientists just discovered the fossilized remains of a new species of penguin, one that was alive millions of years ago, and it looks pretty different from what you'd expect.

It's a giant penguin. It's taller than any penguin around today. And those tuxedoes, well, this bird sported a more casual and colorful style. Those findings were published this week in the journal Science, and here to talk about it is Julia Clarke. She's the lead author on the paper, associate professor of paleontology in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor JULIA CLARKE (Paleontology, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas): Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. How different-looking is this bird from the normal penguin?

Prof. CLARKE: Well, I've thought about this: You know, what would it be like to be on an Eocene beach and see one of these guys come ashore? And they're pretty distinctive.

These giant penguins have quite elongate, prominent beaks. And, of course, their size is striking. Would you immediately recognize something that's twice the size of a living penguin and had a different beak morphology and was differently colored as a giant penguin on first seeing it? I think - I'm not sure we would've.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What color - it was five feet tall, right? And what kind of coloring did it have?

Prof. CLARKE: Well, the coloration - we've been able to map color for parts of the flipper and some of the body feathers. So what we've been able to determine is that a reddish-brown coloration is supported for the underside of the wing, and a gray tone on the leading edge of the wing, and that some of the body feathers that we have also yield support for a reddish-brown coloration.

The thing we don't know is exactly where on the body these body feathers would have been from. So was the animal dominantly reddish-brown, or did it have -was the gray on the wing carried up onto the body to make it sort of half and half? You know, those are questions we still don't know the answers to.

FLATOW: And where did this penguin live?

Prof. CLARKE: The penguin is from Peru. Our fossil site is in what is today the hyper-arid sort of northern extent of the Atacama Desert, about four hours south of Lima. And it was discovered in sediments that are around 36 million years old.

FLATOW: So obviously, it was not desert at that time, when the penguin was around.

Prof. CLARKE: Well, there's some debates. Some data supports longevity, you know, some kind of desert in that region for a very, very long time, just due to patterns in circulation, essentially, that would've been relatively stable over most of earth's - you know, recent earth history.

But we don't know. We think that there would have been a series of islands, or maybe even potentially lagoonal areas in the area where these fossils were recovered.

But I think it's also important to remember that this is also - there were no Andes like we have today. There might have been things closer to small foothills in the region, but nothing as sizable as the Andes we have inland today.

FLATOW: Wow. That's hard to imagine, isn't it? I mean, yeah, pushing those giant mountains up in 30 million years, or something like that.

Prof. CLARKE: Yeah, well, much less. But yeah, and no seals. You know, for instance, we have no evidence that seals come on the scene, you know, 10 millions years later. So it's a very different kind of biota that would have been in these lagoons or near-shore deposits, near-shore areas 36 million years ago.

FLATOW: Now, you must have found penguin fossils before, right? I mean, not you, maybe, but some other people have found penguin fossils. What makes this thing and I shouldn't call it a thing. I'm sorry. What's the name of this penguin? What do we call this penguin?

Prof. CLARKE: Inkayacu paracasensis.

FLATOW: Inkayacu paracasensis. What makes it so special?

Prof. CLARKE: Well, what's particular about this fossil is that it preserves the first evidence of feathering and scale patterns in an extinct penguin.

So this is our first sort of glimpse of early penguin feathering. We've had no other fossils to tell us how the distinctive shape of penguin feathers, how the feathered flipper of living penguins evolved. And this was our first chance to look at that with new fossil data.

FLATOW: You must have renamed this penguin by now into something a little more easy.

Prof. CLARKE: Oh, you mean, do we walk around in the lab and saying how is Inkayacu paracasensis today? Is that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. You must call it something else, right?

Prof. CLARKE: Right. Well, for most of indeed, for most of this penguin's -you know, since its discovery to the latter stages of its description and, you know, for publication, it was called Pedro.

My Peruvian colleagues and expedition co-leader, Rodolfo Salas, named it after a Colombian telenovela, which is like "Pedro El Escamoso," "Sleazy Pedro." So it was named because one of my Peruvian colleagues, a student, Aliat Morano(ph), found the penguin by first seeing that it had soft tissues on the foot, like scaly patterns. And so he very, very early on got the name Pedro, and that stuck around.

FLATOW: Do we think that Pedro evolved into the modern penguin we have today?

Prof. CLARKE: Well, what paleontologists are fundamentally looking at when we have glimpses of these extinct animals is branches from the penguin tree of life.

So we're never really - we don't we think it's pretty uncommon we would discover, you know, a direct ancestor. So all of these guys are twiglets off this penguin tree of life, and they're telling us what the pattern, the sequence of evolutionary changes was in the evolution of penguins.

Like, did penguin flippers evolve early and penguin coloration later, you know, as we found new fossils. So...

FLATOW: Yeah. So we don't know if this is one that decided to put that black-and-white tuxedo on. It could've been a different branch of that tree.

Prof. CLARKE: Well, it's quite possible that the, you know, there was quite a diversity of penguins in the Eocene, you know, early on in penguin evolution. There's a lot of species diversity.

We have our first look at one of those. So it is impossible that tuxedo-like coloration would have been present in other early penguins? We can't rule that out. But what the data we have now suggests that, you know, at least there was a range of colorations in these early penguins outside of the range we see in any living penguins alive today. So...

FLATOW: Anyplace we can see this on exhibit? Is it available to see anywhere? Or...

Prof. CLARKE: Well, if you go to Peru, there's going to be an exhibit at the Reserva Nacional Paracas, and there will be a life-size model of Inkayacu there in the exhibit, so - organized by my Peruvian collaborator, Rodolfo Salas. So that's if you head to Peru.

FLATOW: There you go.

Prof. CLARKE: And the fossils are in Lima, at the museum, in the natural history museum.

FLATOW: Thank you, Professor Clarke, for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you. Congratulations.

Prof. CLARKE: Thank you very much. A pleasure to speak with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Julia Clarke is associate professor of paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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