March of the giant penguins

Giant prehistoric penguins? In Peru? It sounds more like something out of Hollywood than science, but a researcher from North Carolina State University along with U.S., Peruvian and Argentine collaborators has shown that two heretofore undiscovered penguin species reached equatorial regions tens of millions of years earlier than expected and during a period when the earth was much warmer than it is now.

Paleontologist Dr. Julia Clarke, assistant professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at NC State with appointments at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues studied two newly discovered extinct species of penguins. Peruvian paleontologists discovered the new penguins sites in 2005.

The research is published online the week of June in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was funded by the National Science Foundation Office of International Science and Engineering and the National Geographic Society.

The first of the new species, Icadyptes salasi, stood 5 feet tall and lived about 36 million years ago. The second new species, Perudyptes devriesi, lived about 42 million years ago, was approximately the same size as a living King Penguin (2 to 3 feet tall) and represents a very early part of penguin evolutionary history. Both of these species lived on the southern coast of Peru.

These new penguin fossils are among the most complete yet recovered and call into question hypotheses about the timing and pattern of penguin evolution and expansion. Previous theories held that penguins probably evolved in high latitudes (Antarctica and New Zealand) and then moved into lower latitudes that are closer to the equator about 10 million years ago long after significant global cooling that occurred about 34 million years ago.

We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species, Clarke says, even the small penguins in equatori

Contact: Tracey Peake
North Carolina State University

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