A team of paleontologists, including researchers from Massey University, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the Bruce Museum, recently discovered fossilized remains of the oldest known extinct little penguin. Their findings were published in the Journal of Paleontology, where they detailed the discovery of two fossilized skulls in the southern Taranaki region of New Zealand’s North Island, specifically in the Tangahoe Formation. These skulls belonged to an ancient species previously unknown to science, which the team named Eudyptula wilsonae, or Wilson’s little penguin.
The skulls were well-preserved, allowing the researchers to compare them with modern little penguins (kororā), the smallest penguin species alive today. Although they couldn’t precisely determine the size of the ancient species, they estimated they were approximately 35 centimeters tall and weighed just under a kilogram, similar to their modern counterparts.
The study shed light on the lineage of little penguins, as little research had been done on their evolutionary history. The team suspects that the newly discovered species may be a direct descendant of the modern little penguins, given their similarities.
It’s fascinating to note that little penguins have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to environmental changes over the years without significant alterations themselves. They now inhabit a vast range of territories, spanning Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.
The discovered species lived approximately 3 million years ago during the Pleistocene and confirms the existence of little penguins during the Neogen period. Additionally, the findings suggest a Zealandian origin for little penguins in general, further deepening our understanding of their evolutionary past.