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Schoolchildren discover new species of giant penguin

School children on a 2006 field trip to Kawhia Harbor discovered the fossil of a 34 million-year-old giant penguin previously unknown to science.

(CN) — Researchers have named a new species of giant penguin based on fossils discovered by a group of New Zealand school children in 2006. They revealed the name, Kairuku waewaeroa, in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on Thursday.

The Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club found the specimen on their field trip foraging for fossils in Kawhia Harbor, along the west Tasman Sea coast of New Zealand's North Island. Volunteers excavated the siltstone block holding the fossilized bones and carried it to a nearby home, where sediment was chipped away from a portion eroded by the tide.

While penguin fossils are not uncommon in Kawhia Harbor, this species and its well preserved state are.

The club donated the discovery to the Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato in 2017. There, researchers from New Zealand’s Massey University and the Bruce Museum of Greenwich, Connecticut, realized the fossils belonged to a previously unknown species that lived between 27.4 and 34.6 million years ago during the Oligocene period.

“It’s been a real privilege to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin. We know how important this fossil is to so many people,” said the club’s fossil expert Chris Templer in a statement.

“The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role,” Templer added. “The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians].”

Many giant penguins of the past had a spear-like beak. However, without an intact skull, researchers were unable to verify whether Kairuku waewaeroa had the long spear-like beak of other giant penguins.

“A feature that differentiates this fossil from its closer relatives were more elongated hindlimbs, that make this specimen look somewhat more similar to extant penguins,” said Simone Giovanardi, a researcher at Massey University, in an email.

Just as researchers are left to ponder possible advantages offered by the penguin's enormity, Giovanardi wonders whether having long legs gave the birds a hydrodynamic advantage gliding through the water. Other extinct penguins stood from 4.9 to 5.8 feet tall, a size relatively “giant” compared to modern incarnations like the emperor penguin which reaches from 3.6 to 4.2 feet in height.

“These birds rapidly increased their body mass as soon as they became adapt to water just after the dinosaurs extinction,” Giovanardi  explained. “One of the hypothesis is that these birds filled an ecological space left open by the extinction of giant marine reptiles at the end of the cretaceous period.”

Thomas Henry Huxley is credited with finding the first fossilized penguin in 1859. Since then more than 60 species have been added to the family tree, generating a “rich fossil record of penguins [and] much insight into the evolution of adaptations," the researchers wrote in the paper.

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