Fossils unearthed in New Zealand reveal surprising connection to kororā

"These newly discovered fossils show that despite climate changing a lot, this lineage has been robust to those changes.”
Amal Jos Chacko
Wilson’s little penguin – Eudyptula wilsonae.
Wilson’s little penguin – Eudyptula wilsonae.

Simone Giovanardi 

A groundbreaking discovery in New Zealand has unveiled the fossils of a previously unknown species of penguin, shedding light on the seabird fauna of Te Riu-a-Māui Zealandia, according to a press release

Led by Dr. Daniel Thomas and his team from Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University, the research marks an important milestone in understanding the evolutionary history of penguins and their connection to the vibrant ecosystem of Aotearoa.

The fossils, which include nearly complete adult and fledged juvenile skulls of the little penguin lineage, were found in three-million-year-old sediments within the southern Taranaki region of Te Ika-a-Māui North Island. 

Dr. Thomas explained the significance of the findings, stating, "These newly discovered fossils show little penguins like kororā have been part of coastal ecosystems of Zealandia for at least three million years. This is important when thinking about the origins of these penguins, the evolution of the seabird diversity of Aotearoa, and the dynamic environment in which they live."

Ancient Links to Living Penguins.

Aotearoa New Zealand is renowned as a global biodiversity hotspot for seabirds, with a third of the world’s penguin species as breeding residents. 

The new research supports the hypothesis that little penguins, including the newly discovered species, were present in Zealandia during the Neogene period. The age of the fossils suggests that little penguins found in Australia today, close relatives of kororā, may have originally come from Zealandia.

The study's findings hold great importance for understanding the impact of climate change on Aotearoa's biodiversity. "The rising temperature means more species will find Aotearoa habitable, so it’s important to learn as much as we can about the species that lived here during the last warm-world phase," Dr Thomas emphasized.

Despite significant environmental changes over three million years, the physical characteristics of little penguins have remained remarkably consistent, demonstrating their resilience to changing conditions.

A tribute of appreciation.

In a touching tribute to the late New Zealand ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson MNZM, the newly discovered penguin species have been named Eudyptula wilsonae. Ms. Wilson, an internationally respected seabird researcher and advocate for conservation, co-founded the West Coast Penguin Trust, which focuses on conserving seabirds and their habitats.

Dr. Euan Kennedy, a close friend and colleague of Wilson, expressed his appreciation, stating, "It’s a very generous recognition of a courageously motivated seabird champion whose formidable energy, talent, and passion she herself shared generously. She lived for seabirds and for their future in the hands of tomorrow’s talented young researchers."

West Coast Penguin Trust Manager Inger Perkins described the naming of the species as a fitting acknowledgment of Wilson's immense contribution to seabird science. “We are thrilled her name will live on in connection with penguins, it is a tremendous and richly deserved honor,” he added.

Wilson's tireless dedication to the Trust's work ensured evidence-based conservation efforts spanning from little penguins to tawaki Fiordland crested penguins and tāiko Westland petrels.

The research, published in the Journal of Paleontology, not only uncovers a new species but also underscores the importance of preserving New Zealand's rich biodiversity and understanding the ancient origins of its iconic inhabitants. 

This article was written and edited by a human, with the assistance of Generative AI tools. Find out more about our policy on AI-powered writing here.

Study Abstract

A late Pliocene (3.36–3.06 Ma) exposure of the Tangahoe Formation on the North Island of New Zealand preserves close fossil relatives of many extant seabird clades. Here, we report an extinct member of the little penguin (Eudyptula Bonaparte, 1856) lineage from the Tangahoe Formation—the smallest extinct crown penguin yet known. Eudyptula wilsonae n. sp. is based on the nearly complete skulls of an adult and a fledged but immature individual. Both skulls show more slender proportions than modern little penguins and precede genome-derived estimates for the divergence between Eudyptula minor minor Forster, 1781 (endemic to New Zealand) and Eudyptula m. novaehollandiae Stephens, 1826 (native to Australia and recently established in New Zealand). This raises the possibility that the fossil taxon represents a lineage directly ancestral to extant little penguins. Our results support a Zealandian origin for little penguins, with subsequent Pleistocene dispersal to Australia and a more recent Holocene range expansion of Eudyptula m. novaehollandiae back into New Zealand.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board