Colossal penguins

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The largest animals in the ocean weren’t always mammals. They were birds.

A newly discovered penguin was the size of a human—1.6 metres tall, weighing 80 kilograms. Its bones were unearthed from the Waipara Greensands in North Canterbury in 2011 by Leigh Love, an amateur palaeontologist.

One of the fossils, encased in rock, sat in a display cabinet in Love’s living room for years. “I would use it for the fossil talks I did with school groups coming in,” says Love. “This thing would get passed around the kids: ‘Here’s something that’s about 60 million years old’.”

In 2018, Love started to learn fossil preparation—the art of removing the rock to leave the bone exposed. He practised on a crab, then had a go at the penguin leg. It was soon clear it was a new species, dating from a time when penguins ruled the waves.

“Marine mammals took 30 million years to evolve, so there was an ‘age of the giant penguins’ in the oceans for 30 million years before finally the whales and seals took over,” says Paul Scofield of Canterbury Museum. “There was a possibility that penguins were going to become whale-size—all the genes for true giganticism are in a bird, because they are dinosaurs. But it never happened, because mammals took over that niche.”

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