Penguins are much older than previously thought and their evolution probably dates back to dinosaur times, said a study on Friday of a giant ancient penguin fossil found in New Zealand.

The fossilized leg and toe bones found on the east of the South Island came from a huge penguin thought to be about 150 centimetres tall, Xinhua news agency quoted the Christchurch-based Canterbury Museum as saying.

The new find was one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world, dating back to 61 million years ago.

The bones differed substantially from previous penguin finds of a similar age and showed the variety of Palaeocene penguins, living between 66 million and 56 million years ago, was greater than previously thought.

“Penguins had reached enormous proportions early on in their evolutionary history and were already more diverse 60 million years ago than we had previously assumed,” said research leader Gerald Mayr of Germany’s Senckenberg Research Institute.

“This diversity indicates that penguins probably evolved during the age of the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago,” Mayr said.

The fossil was found in the Canterbury region’s Waipara River, which was renowned for its rare but well preserved bird fossils deposited only four million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, said museum senior curator Professor Paul Scofield.

“We have found turtles, many species of shark, giant fish, two types of flying birds and two species of a penguin-like bird named Waimanu, considered to be the oldest fossil of any group of birds living today,” Scofield said.

“Until now it had been assumed that Waimanu was the only penguin alive during this time.”

Research curator Vanesa De Pietri said the fossilized lower leg bone was very different from that of Waimanu, both in size and in anatomical detail.

“Looking at this and the toe bones of the newly-discovered penguin we think it also walked differently from the cormorant-like gait of Waimanu. The larger penguin was already waddling like the penguins we see today,” De Pietri said.

First Published | 24 February 2017 12:17 PM
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