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Fossil reveals human-sized penguin once roamed New Zealand

Fossil reveals human-sized penguin once roamed New Zealand

The prehistoric penguin lived between 55 and 60 million years ago and stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall and could weigh as much as 220 pounds.

This illustration provided by Gerald Mayr shows the sizes of an ancient giant penguin Kumimanu biceae and a human being.

Artististic reconstruction of the Paleocene giant penguin Kumimanu biceae.

The partially-fossilized skeleton was unearthed from a beach, in the Otago region of New Zealand's South Island.

Artistic reconstruction of Kumimanu biceae.

Penguins share a common ancestor with flying birds from which they diverged millions of years ago, losing the ability to get airborne but becoming accomplished swimmers instead.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the New Zealand and German research team show that the birds probably evolved to be that big because they couldn't fly. It's extremely old, being not only the earliest known giant penguin, but also one of the first penguins, period.

They found evidence of one in New Zealand, a 60-million-year-old fossil encased in an ultra-hard sedimentary rock.

"The fossils are among the earliest known finds of penguins and it is noteworthy that these earliest forms were enormously large", one of the researchers, Dr Gerald Mayr, from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, explained in a statement.

Scientists named the formidable giant penguin Kumimanu biceae - where "kumi" is a terrifying monster in Maori mythology and "manu" is the Maori word for "bird".

Icadyptes and Inkayacu were human-sized penguins with sharp, heron-like beaks that patrolled the coast of Peru more than 30 million years ago. What they found was that K. biceae had bone features somewhere in between its descendants and older penguins, like Waimanu, a "proto" penguin species discovered in New Zealand that is older (but much shorter) than K. biceae. Kumimanu appears to be a primitive offshoot of the penguin lineage, far outside the branch that most giant penguins belonged to - a now-extinct arm of a modern penguin family called Palaeeudyptinae that existed 15 to 20 million years after Kumimanu's time.

It's not very often researchers find the remains of enormous penguins from before the Paleocene period, which marked the start of the mass-extinction event that wiped out many non-avian dinosaurs and huge marine reptiles. We now know, incredibly, that ancestral penguins survived the event that killed the big, non-bird dinos, and then rapidly blew up in size. Studies suggest early penguins were brownish, not the trademark black and white of today's penguins, Mayr said.

"It is possible that the disappearance of large marine reptiles enabled the penguins to explore new ecological niches". Around 33 million years ago, large marine mammals like tusked dolphins, whales, and seals-all of which had a hefty appetite for seafood-began to populate the world's oceans.

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