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Scientists have discovered the fossil of a prehistoric penguin. It's an ancient species that swam off the coast of New Zealand between 55 and 60 million years ago. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, the bird was a giant compared to today's penguins.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The largest living penguin today is the emperor penguin. You know, the bird from the documentary "March Of The Penguins."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARCH OF THE PENGUINS")
MORGAN FREEMAN: The emperor penguin will march to a place so extreme it supports no other life.
CHATTERJEE: The emperor is between 3 and a half to 4 feet tall. This newly discovered penguin was around 5-foot-10.
GERALD MAYR: That's about as tall as a medium-sized man.
CHATTERJEE: That's Gerald Mayr, a paleontologist in Frankfurt, Germany. He was part of the team that studied the fossil. Mayr estimates that the bird was big, about 220 pounds.
MAYR: This particular specimen is one of the largest known fossil penguins. It's also one of the earliest known fossil penguins.
CHATTERJEE: Paleontologist Julia Clarke of UT Austin is excited.
JULIA CLARKE: I mean, what's not cool about a human-sized penguin?
CHATTERJEE: Clarke, who wasn't part of the study, says this new discovery suggests that penguins got really big early on in their evolution. And while giant penguins might seem odd to us, for millions of years they were pretty common. This particular species swam around in the ocean shortly after the big mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. The seas were relatively empty back then, and so it probably had all the room to grow big.
CLARKE: Giant penguins are occupying the seas about 20 million years before whales enter the oceans.
CHATTERJEE: And scientists think it was the whales, the walruses and the seals that probably doomed the giant penguins. And it could be why they became extinct, leaving us with the smaller, cuter birds we adore. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
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