A team of paleontologists, including researchers from Massey University, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the Bruce Museum, has made an exciting discovery – the fossilized remains of the oldest known extinct little penguin. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Paleontology, shedding light on the ancient species and its relation to modern little penguins.
The team unearthed two fossilized skulls in the southern Taranaki region of New Zealand’s North Island, specifically in the Tangahoe Formation. Through testing, they confirmed that both skulls belonged to the same ancient species, which had never been found before. They named this species Eudyptula wilsonae, denoting it as Wilson’s little penguin. One skull belonged to an adult, while the other belonged to a juvenile. Both skulls were well-preserved, allowing for comparisons with the smallest existing species of penguin, the modern little penguins (kororā).
While the paleontologists couldn’t definitively determine the size of the ancient species, they estimated that it stood around 35 centimeters tall and weighed just under a kilogram, based on comparisons with its modern relatives.
Although multiple little penguin species currently inhabit Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania, limited research has been conducted on their lineage. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether the newly discovered species is a direct ancestor. However, given their similarities, the research team believes it is likely.
The team also emphasizes the remarkable adaptability of little penguins, as they have thrived in a changing world without significant evolutionary changes. The environment surrounding them has undergone significant transformations throughout the years. Additionally, modern little penguins boast the widest territorial range among all penguin species.
The recently discovered species lived approximately 3 million years ago and dispersed during the Pleistocene epoch. This finding confirms the existence of little penguins during the Neogen period and suggests a Zealandian origin for this group of penguins.