Mass extinctions are terrible events. Such losses to life on Earth can be counted and cataloged, but are so vast are in scale that the devastation can hardly be understood. But life has always bounced back. Take the catastrophe that closed the Cretaceous 66 million years ago. We lost the non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mosasaurs, and other magnificent creatures, but, in the aftermath, the survivors flourished. Among those that became pioneers of the new Cenozoic world were penguins.

Penguins are a very ancient form of bird. The very first of their kind had evolved by 61 million years ago. Rather than embodying a straight-line march between archaic forms and penguins of modern aspect, though, paleontologists are finding that early penguins were both diverse and disparate. And among their numbers was a giant.

The latest early penguin to be announced has no official name yet. Paleontologist Gerald Mayr and colleagues refer to it by its catalog number, CM 2016.158.1. But this animal's foot bones, found in the 61 million year old greensand of New Zealand, have helped alter the picture of what happened as penguin evolution took off in the early chapters of the Cenozoic.

The fossils were found about 36 feet above the spot where Waimanu manneringi, the oldest known penguin, was discovered. The bones of CM 2016.158.1 appear to be from a larger animal, though, rivaling those of the huge penguin Anthropornis in size. This was a penguin that could have looked you straight in the eye. At the very least, Mayr and coauthors wrote, this indicates penguins evolved to giant sizes very early in their history and huge penguin species persisted for the next 30 million years.

But there's something else. Even though CM 2016.158.1 was found so close to Waimanu, the details of its bones indicate that it was more derived. In other words, it's a sign that Waimanu represents a much more archaic form that lived near in time or at the same time as penguins that were departing further from their ancestral stock by 61 million years ago. In the context of other recent finds, Mayr and coauthors write, this might mean that penguins actually originated in the Late Cretaceous and underwent a much earlier diversification than previously thought. We're only just starting to understand the dawn of the penguins.

A family tree of penguins. Credit: Mayr et al. 2017

Fossil Facts

Name: There is no official name yet, but the fossils carry the catalog number CM 2016.158.1.

Age: Paleocene, 61 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Canterbury Province, New Zealand.

What sort of critter?: An early penguin.

Size: Larger than today's emperor penguin.

How much of the organism’s body is known?: A partial left foot.


Mayr, G. De Pietri, V., Scofield, P. 2017. A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world's oldest penguins. Science of Nature. doi: 10.1007/s00114-017-1441-0

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The Light-Footed Lizard
The Maoming Cat
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The La Luna Snake
The Rio do Rasto Tooth
Bob Weir's Otter
Egypt's Canine Beast
The Vastan Mine Tapir
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The Dawn Megamouth
The Genga Lizard
The Micro Lion
The Mystery Titanosaur
The Echo Hunter
The Lo Hueco Titan
The Three-Branched Cicada
The Monster of Minden
The Pig-Footed Bandicoot
Hayden's Rattlesnake Demon
The Evasive Ostrich Seer
The Paradoxical Mega Shark
The Tiny Beardogs
The Armored Fish King
North America's Pangolin
The Invisible-Tusked Elephant
The Mud Dragon
The Spike-Toothed Salmon
The Dream Coast Crocodile
Buriol's Robber
Ozimek's Flyer
The Northern Naustoceratopsian
The High Arctic Flyer
The Tomatillo From the End of the World
The Short-Faced Hyena
The Mighty Traveler from Egg Mountain
Keilhau's Ichthyosaur
Mexico's Ancient Horned Face
Mauricio Fernández's Plesiosaur