Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Two fossils recently discovered in Peru reveal that early penguins responded differently to natural climate change than scientists would have predicted. The larger skull, Icadyptes salasi (top), would have been fearsome to encounter because this penguin stood over five feet tall, and had a seven-inch beak, and is one of the largest penguins ever described. Compare this new penguin species to the smaller skull (below), which is from the modern-day Peruvian (Humboldt) penguin, Spheniscus humboldti.

Image: PNAS / Daniel Ksepka. [larger]

Two newly discovered fossils have revealed the hidden past of penguins: they were much larger and possibly more dangerous than originally thought. This fossil, which was discovered in Peru and was given the scientific name, Icadyptes salasi, was 1.5 meters tall and weighed as much as a man. The 36 million-year-old tropical bird’s intimidating appearance was topped off with powerful arms, a thick neck and a potentially dangerous 18-centimeter beak.

“It’s a monster,” said Julia Clarke, of North Carolina State University, who described the fossils with her colleagues from Peru and Argentina in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The bird is larger than any penguin known today and the third largest known to have ever lived, she added. (The largest is Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, Nordenskjoeld’s giant penguin, which lived up to six million years ago and whose fossils were found in New Zealand, and was probably 2 meters tall and weighed 100 kilograms).

The team discovered a second penguin fossil nearby. This was from another species that was new to science, and it was given the scientific name, Perudyptes devriesi. This fossil was from an even older penguin, which lived approximately 42 million years ago. Despite its age, Perudyptes devriesi was actually quite similar to the modern king penguin, which is one of the largest living penguin species, standing approximately three feet tall. Interestingly, this particular fossil also revealed that ancient penguins’ wings were different from the very specialized “flippers” that they currently have.

The two fossil finds are remarkably complete and well preserved. In fact, the researchers were able to distinguish the fine patterning on the beak of the giant penguin that was from an outer layer of keratin — keratin makes up toenails and feathers and also covers bird beaks. Further, based on the structure of these new penguins’ beaks, both were likely fish eaters.

These discoveries challenge scientists’ understanding of the relationship between penguin evolution and cold weather as well as how species adapt to warmer temperatures, suggesting this connection more complex than originally thought. For example, scientists originally thought that ancient penguins first appeared more than 60 million years ago in cold habitats and didn’t move close to the equator until 8 million years ago. Large penguins, in particular, were thought to live only in colder climates.

“We have this ingrained notion of a penguin on an iceberg in a cool sea. But for most of their long history, penguins were in situations of no ice, with maybe crocodiles near them,” explained Clarke.

After reworking the penguin family tree to include these new fossils, scientists learned that modern penguins appeared only 8 million years ago — contrary to earlier estimates based on molecular studies that analyzed DNA from living penguins. The molecular studies suggested that the origin of modern penguins was approximately 40 million years ago.

These newly described ancient penguins lived between 30 and 40 million years ago during one of earth’s warm “greenhouse” phases, just before the planet began cooling. However, even as the planet cooled, the equator remained warm longer than any other region, with average temperatures in Peru hovering around 79 degrees.

“The global average temperature was much higher than at present,” Clarke pointed out. “And there was relatively little difference between the temperatures at the poles and the equator,” she said.

It is possible that the normally temperature-sensitive penguins migrated into warmer climates when new ocean currents first appeared, which moved cold nutrient-rich water northward. In fact, modern warm-weather penguins, such as the Galapagos penguin, still rely on these cold currents for their survival.

These two newly described penguin species became extinct before the earth formed its first polar ice caps about 34 million years ago. However, although these species were adapted to the tropics, it does not mean that modern penguin species will be able to adapt to rapid climate change, such as what is predicted in the near future.

“What happened over millions and millions of years cannot usefully inform us about what may happen over just the next 1,000 years,” emphasized Clarke. “The data from these new fossil species cannot be used to argue that warming wouldn’t negatively impact living penguins.”

Artist’s rendering of two penguin fossils recently discovered in Peru, compared to an extant species. The medium-sized of the two penguins (left), Perudyptes devriesi, was comparable in size to the living king penguin (not pictured). The larger, Icadyptes salasi (right), would have been fearsome to encounter at over five feet tall, with a seven-inch beak, because it is one of the largest penguins ever described. The smallest penguin in the picture (middle), appears to be a Humboldt penguin (although some of the field marks look a little “off” to me).

Image: PNAS / Daniel Ksepka. [larger]

Sources

The Age (image)

CNN (quotes)

Seattle Times (quotes)

Comments

  1. #1 Warren
    June 27, 2007

    Oh wow. In the novella At the Mountains of Madness, HP Lovecraft writes of monstrous, fat penguins inhabiting the ruin of a building that’s millions of years old.

    If the next discovery happens to include Shuggoths, we’re hosed.

  2. #2 Carrie
    June 27, 2007

    Warren,
    I just finished MoM and that was exactly my thought! Lovecraft’s penguins were also albino and blind…

  3. #3 Library Diva
    June 27, 2007

    I’m going to start a band called “Killer Penguins.” Now soliciting a drummer and bassist (I will play guitar; I want grrlscientist to sing lead).

  4. #4 Chardyspal
    June 27, 2007

    So possibly penguins evolved as cold-current birds that were able to succeed in/occupy cold environment niches when the Earth cooled?

    For the large penguin to have such a large beak etc, I would think there must have been some pretty big fish/sea creatures for it to eat!

    Clapping

    Chardyspal

  5. #5 Christophe Thill
    June 28, 2007

    Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

  6. #6 Baratos
    June 28, 2007

    This reminds me of the Monty Python skit where they enlarged the penguin. Is the brain still larger than it was in this case?

  7. #7 Laelaps
    June 29, 2007

    I was waiting all week for the PNAS article to become available; what really impressed me was the fact that these penguins were found where no one would have predicted them. Everyone thought the largest penguins would stay towards cooler climes, their bodies retaining too much heat to be near the equator, but obviously something else is up. I can’t wait to see what becomes of some of the other fossils the group found.

  8. #8 William Faulk
    June 29, 2007

    From the picture’s caption:

    Artist’s rendering of two penguin fossils recently discovered in Peru. The smaller of the two…

    There are three penguins pictured. Please fix this so we know which is which (is which).

  9. #9 "GrrlScientist"
    June 29, 2007

    oh! i am sorry about the captioning issue. i didn’t mean to confuse you. i hope things are clearer now.

  10. #10 Cameron
    June 29, 2007

    Kinda reminds me of Spec World’s hypothetical giant killer penguins:

    http://www.bowdoin.edu/~dbensen/Spec/Sphenisciformes.html

    For a common name, something in the vein of Screaming Ninja Penguin of DEATH!!! or Giant Psycho-Killer Penguin of Death would suit this birdie just fine. Hey, there are Demon Ducks of Doom after all…

  11. #11 wrpd
    June 30, 2007

    That’s just great! Now I’ll be having nightmares about giant killer penguins. I hardly sleep at all because of the vicious bloody man-eating clams. Maybe there are some things that scientists should not reveal to the rest of the world.

  12. #12 Shawn
    July 1, 2007

    So Billy Madison was right on.

  13. #13 jarred
    February 1, 2008

    dude a six foot penguin would be the shit. i want one as a pet. hahaha. i would box it.lol

  14. #14 jarred
    February 1, 2008

    dude a six foot penguin would be the shit. i want one as a pet. hahaha. i would box it.lol. I would make it my guard penguin. what would u do if u opend the door and there was a six foot penguin starin at u eye to eye. dude he would fuck u up. thats fuckin crazy