Scientists in Antarctica Discover the Remains of the Largest Penguin Species Ever

Aptly dubbed the “colossus penguin,” the enormous bird lived roughly 37 million years ago, weighed 250 pounds, and could reach up to seven feet tall!

Artist depiction of the colossus penguin’s size as compared to humans. Image: BirdLife Australia/FB

The fossil remains of the largest penguin species on the planet have been unearthed by scientists in Antarctica. Because of its enormous size, they named the species “Colossus penguin” (Palaeeudyptes klekowskii).

Until recently, the species was thought to have been approximately the size of its congener Palaeeudyptes antarcticus, which would mean it was somewhat larger than the modern emperor penguin.

Scientists observe an emperor penguin in Antarctica. Source

However, a groundbreaking study has shown it was in fact almost twice as tall!

The research team was able to estimate how large these prehistoric birds actually were by scaling and comparing the fossils of colossus penguins to those of modern-day penguin species. The difference is indeed remarkable!

Image source: New Scientist/Twitter

This penguin thrived in the warmer Late Eocene epoch, when the climate was likely similar to that that of present-day Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. According to study author Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche, this was “a wonderful time for penguins, when 10 to 14 species lived together along the Antarctic coast.”

The penguin’s remains – the most complete fossil record ever discovered in the Antarctic – were found at La Meseta on Seymour Island, a chain of 16 islands on the Antarctic Peninsula. The place has a reputation among scientists as being an abundant source of penguin bones. This area is well known in the scientific community as having an abundance of penguin bones.

Satellite view of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands from summer 2010. Seymour Island lies to the southeast of the mainland, and is one of the few areas of Antarctica that does not have year-round snow cover. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

The site has yielded thousands of penguin bones, and Hospitaleche had been excavating fossil deposits here when she reported the most complete P. klekowskii skeleton yet, although it contained only about a dozen bones, mostly from the wings and feet.

Now she has uncovered two bigger bones. One of them is part of a wing, and the other is a tarsometatarsus, a bone that is only found in the lower leg of birds and some non-avian dinosaurs and is formed by the fusion of ankle and foot bones. The latter measures a record 9.1 centimetres! It was on the basis of these findings, as well as the relative sizes of bones in other penguin skeletons, that Hospitaleche was able to estimate that P. klekowskii was about 7 feet long from beak tip to toes.

A size comparison showing the study author, P. klekowski, an emperor penguin, and Aprosdokitos mikrotero, the tiniest penguin that lived that lived in Antarctica during the Paleogene. Source

The colossus penguin was probably a good hunter. Larger penguins can dive deeper and stay underwater longer than smaller ones, which means that this particular penguin may have been able to stay underwater for as long as 40 minutes, giving it more time to hunt fish.

Truly a remarkable creature.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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