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Scientists discover tiny penguin species in New Zealand that lived millions of years ago

While modern little penguins, known as kororā, can still be found in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, this newly discovered extinct species is believed to be the oldest of its kind ever found.

Scientists discover tiny penguin species in New Zealand that lived millions of years ago
Cover Image Source: Massey University | Simone Giovanardi

A team of researchers in New Zealand recently discovered an extinct penguin species newly known as Eudyptula wilsonae. The name means Wilson’s little penguin. Two fossilized skulls, one that belonged to a young penguin and another to an adult penguin, were found on New Zealand's North Island, per BBC. Their relatives known as little penguins, or kororā can still be found today in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. The newly-discovered extinct species is believed to be the oldest-known extinct little penguin ever discovered. These small penguins would have been seen around New Zealand three million years ago.


Scientists noted how the lineage of these “ridiculously cute” penguins has changed over time, despite big environmental shifts over the course of their evolution, according to a blog post written by paleontologist Daniel Ksepka, a co-author of the study. Dr. Daniel Thomas, leader of the study, used "morphometric methods to compare the juvenile and adult skulls to one another and to the skulls of modern Eudyptula penguins. The results show the new species has a more slender skull, which along with the age of the fossils suggests as a possible ancestor of modern little penguins."


"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,” co-author Daniel Thomas, a zoologist at New Zealand’s Massey University, said in a statement. “For one thing, the climate has changed a lot over this time, and this lineage has been robust to those changes.”

Many modern little penguins starved to death in 2022 as fish moved to cooler waters beyond the diving abilities of the penguins due to climate change. “With millions of years of environmental change now being compressed into just a few human lifetimes, rising temperatures are enabling tropical animals to expand their ranges, leading to potentially irrevocable changes in wildlife communities in Aotearoa and other higher-latitude locations,” Thomas told NZ Herald.


A team of researchers at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa will now study the skulls of Wilson's little penguins to see how animals like these coped the last time the earth experienced very warm temperatures. This can help establish data that will create a "biodiversity forecast" of what might happen to our animals and ecosystems in the future. While these small animals may look adorable the ones that exist currently need humans to recognize the complexity of their survival. “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 shared.

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