New Zealand’s oceans are renowned for attracting diverse seabirds worldwide, making it a global hotspot for seabird diversity. However, understanding the origins of this hotspot has been challenging due to limited fossil discoveries connecting modern seabirds to their ancient ancestors.
A breakthrough came when researchers from Massey University, Bruce Museum, Canterbury Museum, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Iowa State University examined fossil bones from an ancient penguin found in Taranaki, New Zealand. Thanks to the collaboration of local collectors and museum curators Alan Tennyson and Paul Scofield, the three-million-year-old dawn crested penguin Eudyptes atatu was identified, providing a crucial link to the past.
Daniel Thomas from Massey University’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences expressed excitement about this research collaboration. He emphasized that the discovery of Eudyptes atatu confirms the presence of crested penguins and possibly other seabird types in Zealandia for millions of years, making the New Zealand continent a significant site for seabird evolution.
The name “Eudyptes atatu” is derived from Te Reo Maori, where “ata tū” means “dawn.” This reflects the species being the starting point of our understanding of crested penguins in New Zealand.
The detailed research paper titled “Ancient crested penguin constrains timing of recruitment into seabird hotspot,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals that the ancestor of all penguins lived in Zealandia more than 60 million years ago. Moreover, it suggests that the ancestor of crested penguins may have originated in Zealandia and later dispersed throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
This study sheds light on the evolution and diversity of penguins in New Zealand’s ancient past and highlights the significance of Zealandia as a crucial hub for seabird development over millions of years.