Saturday, December 25, 2010

Penguin Evolution Revisited

Click photo to enlarge
University of Otago geologist Assoc Prof Ewan Fordyce examines a fossilised penguin wing bone that shows signs of a grooves heat-retention mechanism. Photo by Jane Dawber.
University of Otago geologist Assoc Prof Ewan Fordyce examines a fossilised penguin wing bone that shows signs of a grooves heat-retention mechanism. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Most people think of penguins as cold-water or polar birds, but latest research linked to the University of Otago sheds new light on that traditional view. A research paper published last week in British-based journal Biology Letters also offers new insights into the evolutionary development of penguins.
The paper's first author is Dr Daniel Thomas, a New Zealander who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
His recent Otago doctorate was supervised by Associate Prof Ewan Fordyce, who heads the Otago University geology department.
Prof Fordyce, who also contributed to the paper, said it had long been believed that penguins thrived by adapting to increasingly cold conditions, including in the now largely ice-covered Antarctic.
This region, which had earlier been semi-tropical, became glaciated about 34 million years ago.
However, the paper points out that, much earlier, about 49 million years ago, penguins lived in much warmer conditions, when some ocean surface temperatures were about 25degC.
And it was at that stage that penguins evolved a key heat-retention mechanism that effectively pre-adapted them to thrive in later, much colder, conditions, including in the Antarctic.
It seemed ''counterintuitive'' for such mechanisms to evolve at a time of global warmth, but researchers suspected that the evolutionary change occurred then ''to allow penguins to forage for food in cool depths, far below the warm surface waters'', Prof Fordyce said.
Faced with a ''constant threat from hypothermia'' in deep, cold waters, penguins had developed a ''counter-current heat exchanger'', which managed the flow of blood along the wing and significantly improved heat retention and energy efficiency.
Wings were used to help propel the birds through the water.
Prof Fordyce said grooves in fossilised wing bones showed evidence of this mechanism.
By the mechanism, warmer blood that was being moved out to the wings was also used to heat the cooler blood coming back from the wings before it re-entered the penguin body core.
Dr Thomas was a ''very, very good researcher'' and the study highlighted the ''power of fossils'' to show how animals had evolved, Prof Fordyce said.


Penguins Weren't Always Adapted to the Cold

Palaeeudyptes, one of the "giant" penguins lived during the Oligocene, about 28 million years ago. Bones in this bird and its relatives show clear evidence of a heat-conserving structure known as a humeral arterial plexus. Credit: the Geology Museum, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

How Penguins Got Their Cold-Weather Coats

By Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor
posted: 21 December 2010
Those tuxedo-wearing birds that inhabit Earth's coldest continent may have evolved a means of retaining heat when they were still living in warm climates, scientists now suggest.
A key adaptation that helped modern penguins to invade the cold waters of Antarctica within the last 16 million years is the so-called humeral arterial plexus, a network of blood vessels that limits heat loss through the wings.

The plexus routes blood coming into the body from the wings past the blood traveling from the body to the wings. As such, the cooler blood from the wings, which get cold in the water, is heated up by warmer blood from the body, thus conserving heat.

To find out more about how this anatomical structure evolved, scientists investigated seven live penguin species and 19 fossil ones. In live specimens, they found the plexus leaves behind grooves in the upper arm bone called the humerus. As such, they could see when this structure began appearing in extinct penguin species from the fossil record.

Surprisingly, they found the plexus arose at least 49 million years ago, when the planet was going through a warm "greenhouse Earth" phase due to vast amounts of global warming gases that got pumped into the atmosphere, perhaps by volcanism. 

"I began this work thinking we would relate heat retention in penguins to the global cooling that took place at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary [about 34 million years ago], whereas in fact, penguins were cold-water-tolerant millions of years earlier," researcher Daniel Thomas, a paleontologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told LiveScience.

The earliest known penguins to feature the plexus lived on the lost continent of Gondwana, on what is now Seymour Island in Antarctica. Back then, the waters there were 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), compared with the water's current average temperature of 34 degrees F (1 degree C). (Scientists can deduce ancient temperatures by looking at the chemistry of fossils — for instance, magnesium levels in the shells of certain organisms rise as temperatures go up.)

The researchers suspect the plexus first evolved to help penguins save energy during long foraging trips in the cold water, as the structure evolved in concert with dramatic skeletal changes that promoted buoyancy and reduced drag, thus improving deep-diving and long-distance swimming. As global climate cooled, the plexus then found a new use, proving key to the penguins' invasion of Antarctic ice sheets. 

"Penguins have occupied much of the Southern Hemisphere in the last 40 million years because of their tolerance for cold water," Thomas said.

Thomas and his colleagues Dan Ksepka and Ewan Fordyce detailed their findings online Dec. 22 in the journal Biology Letters.

The pink underside of the yellow-eyed penguin's wings shows how its heat-regulating humeral arterial plexus looks from the outside. Credit: Daniel Thomas.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Busy Adeliés

Penguin Update from Dr. Dee Boersma

Hello Penguin Lovers and Supporters --
Here's a penguin update. Chicks have hatched!! We know that the Punta Tombo colony covers 400 hectares and the update tells you how many active nests we estimate from survey data in 1987 and 2006. Read to see what you helped us accomplish. Thanks for your interest in the penguins of patagonia and Happy Holidays.

P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D
Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science
Department of Biology, Box 351800
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-1800
Phone: 206-616-2185
Fax: 206-221-7839

Penguin_update mailing list

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Robot to Follow Penguins as They Hunt for Food

People place an instrument in the water.
Photo Courtesy: Mark Moline
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Adélie penguins near Palmer Station.
Left: Scientists deploy a REMUS AUV over the side of a small boat off the coast of Florida. Mark Moline will employ a similar instrument in Antarctica to track Adélie penguins as they hunt for food during their breeding season to learn about the places they favor.

Bird watching

Autonomous robot to follow penguins as they hunt for food

Mark Moline External Non-U.S. government site was working on his PhD in the early 1990s when he was last doing research along the Antarctic Peninsula — the first graduate student of the nascent Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) program External Non-U.S. government site.

Scientists with the PAL LTER were only just getting a handle on the marine ecosystem of the northwestern peninsula region at the time. They knew the sea ice that waxed and waned on the ocean waters with the seasons played a key role, serving as an important habitat for critters from Adélie penguins to shrimplike krill.
What they didn’t know then was that the region was already undergoing remarkable changes. A warmer and moist subantarctic climate was shoving the colder and drier conditions farther south.

Now the researchers understand the northern Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than just about anywhere on the planet. Average winter temperatures have increased about 6.5 degrees Celsius since the 1950s, rising more than five times faster than the global average.

Deep, warm water is flooding onto the relatively shallow continental shelf due to complex interactions between the ocean and atmosphere. That’s affected the lifecycle of winter sea ice, which on average has dropped by three months per year, meaning it forms later and melts earlier. Year-round sea ice has virtually disappeared.

The sea-ice dependent species have also taken a hit. The most obvious and well-documented is the plight of the Adélies. If current conditions persist, the local colonies will be all but extinct by the end of the decade.
That’s the Antarctic Peninsula today, about 17 years after Moline last visited. Now a professor at California Polytechnic State University External Non-U.S. government site and director of the school’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences External Non-U.S. government site, Moline will return to the Ice this season to help answer an important question about Adélie ecology in the context of today’s changing climate.

Namely: Why do they forage in the locations that they do?

And the best way to figure that out is to follow the adult penguins while they are busy searching for food for their young chicks during the height of the fledgling period in December and January.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Adélie penguins near Palmer Station.
Divers in the water with an object.
Photo Courtesy: Mark Moline
Divers handle the AUV in more temperate waters than what the robot will swim through in Antarctica.
For that job Moline will employ a REMUS autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) whose suite of sensors will tell scientists about the oceanographic conditions where the penguins hunt, as well as the biomass of potential prey in the area — how much food is available to eat.

“The underwater vehicle matches up almost identically to the birds’ endurance, depth and speed characteristics,” Moline explained. “It does what a penguin does in terms of its foraging journey. It’s an ideal tool for going out and characterizing these birds.”

Moline is collaborating with Bill Fraser External Non-U.S. government site, who heads the seabird component of the PAL LTER program. Members of Fraser’s team spend each austral summer working out of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site smallest research base, Palmer Station External U.S. government site, tracking and observing the Adélies and other bird populations.

The Palmer Station “birders” use satellite tags to track individual penguins. The researchers have known for some time the Adélies favor various canyons along the continental shelf where the bathymetry, or underwater topography, induces an upwelling of warmer water.

The conditions seem to produce a hotspot of biological activity, offering a reliable and long-term source of food for the penguins.

Fraser said that Moline’s instrument should provide information to test hypotheses about these hotspots and better define the conditions that exist. “These data should also provide some predictive capabilities, by which I mean they should give us some idea about where Adélie colonies may emerge in the southern [Western Antarctic Peninsula] as warming continues,” Fraser said.

The canyons near Palmer Station and similar features down the peninsula have been explored to some degree by a different AUV called a Slocum glider. However, the REMUS vehicle will be able to follow the birds in “real-time” based on location information from the satellite tags.

“That’s the first time that’s been done,” Moline said. “The animals can tell us where they’re going, but the vehicles can tell us why they’re going there.”

Moline and his colleagues have deployed the AUVs around the world in all sorts of environments, logging more than 5,000 kilometers under water on more than 250 missions.
Torpedo-shaped instrument in water.
Photo Courtesy: Mark Moline
The REMUS vehicle has logged more than 250 missions.
Their research includes work in the Arctic off Svalbard, Norway, where the intrusion of North Atlantic Ocean water into the region is potentially disrupting the food web. One bird species, the little auk, which superficially resembles a penguin, was found to be diving deeper in the water to find more nutritious prey.

“It’s a similar study but in a different area,” Moline noted.
For the Antarctic study — a one-year field project funded by the National Science Foundation’s External U.S. government site  EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program — Moline and technician Ian Robbins will spend about five weeks at Palmer Station. Every couple of days they will release the AUV to hunt with the penguins, as well as to characterize areas where the penguins aren’t going.

“One of the efforts here is to not only characterize the penguins’ habitat, per say, but also do it in the context of this large-scale change that is occurring,” Moline said.

Moline said he hopes the technology will prove its worth on this trial project so that it can be used in the future to track the other animal populations in the region, including the gentoo and chinstrap penguins, subantarctic species that are growing in numbers as the Adélies decline.

“It seems like these tools are prime time for polar regions,” Moline said. “We’ve been trying to push these technologies in the polar regions that are traditionally under sampled from a marine perspective. We’re trying to break some new ground here with some new technology.”

In addition to the collaboration with Fraser’s Polar Oceans Research Group, Moline’s data will be used as part of a NASA External Non-U.S. government site program involving several institutions that links satellite data of changes in the ocean to penguin foraging.

All of this effort will eventually feed into the bigger picture of how climate change is affecting the ecosystem of the Antarctic Peninsula, according to Moline.

“It’s pretty amazing that large-scale changes can occur during one’s career,” he said.
NSF-funded research in this story: Mark Moline, California Polytechnic State University, Award No. 1019838 External U.S. government site

Sunday, November 28, 2010

'Fraser's Penguins': Fen Montaigne's account of the Adélie penguin and its rapidly warming home

"Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica" is journalist and writer Fen Montaigne's breathtaking account of the life and times of the Adélie penguin of Antarctica, a species whose storm-tossed home is warming up faster than nearly any spot on earth, thanks to global warming. Montaigne will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance
Fen Montaigne

The author of "Fraser's Penguins" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 in advance at, at 800-838-3006, and at the door. 
The best books about far-off places make the exotic relatable, make the unimaginable plausible. In "Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica" (Henry Holt, 288 pp., $26), journalist and travel writer Fen Montaigne does both. He puts us up on deck as life-ending stormy waters roil off the coast of Antarctica; puts us on the ice as he's attacked (and describes attacks) by some of the world's most mysterious creatures; bundles us in warmth as we tumble out into an otherworldly, snowy, icy, chilling, breathtaking expanse.
The year is 2005. Montaigne is tailing longtime ecologist Bill Fraser as he conducts his ongoing research of Adélie penguins during breeding season on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula. Over five months, he sees firsthand what Fraser has observed since his studies began in the early 1970s — that this fragile, starkly beautiful ecosystem is warming faster than nearly any spot on Earth (an 11 degrees Fahrenheit winter heat rise in the past 60 years) and becoming inhospitable to many of the creatures that have called it home for thousands of years, including the tuxedoed, iconic Adélie penguin.

Melting sea ice means less krill, which means fewer of the Adélie, fewer of its predator, the brown skua, and an invasion of warmer-weather gentoo penguins. By focusing on the imperiled future of one Antarctic species, he demonstrates the interconnected, questionable future for them all (and in turn, the rest of the planet).
The astonishing vignettes woven throughout are not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Montaigne's descriptions are painstakingly clear, which means that brutal moments, like a pair of skuas ripping apart a fuzzy penguin chick for dinner, seem real enough to make the reader flinch. His story of orcas smashing up through ice, attempting to nab unsuspecting seals and other potential prey (ponies, dogs, men) generates goose bumps — especially when he names adventurers who have narrowly dodged a similar fate, close enough to feel the "fishy smelling" blast of orca breath.

But the sublime moments are utterly so.

"One evening as we wrapped up our work on Torgersen, Fraser looked at groups of a dozen or two Adélies walking past us on their way from the sea to their colonies. As the overcast skies grew imperceptibly darker, the penguins' white breasts gleamed against the gray cobble, the clinking of their pink feet on the stones reminiscent of wind chimes."

Readers of this book would benefit from keeping Internet access nearby so the snow petrels, leopard seals, great southern petrels and other creatures he mentions (only a few species are pictured) can be better visualized to add gorgeous context. Birders, historians, those concerned about the environment and adventure lovers will find much to savor in this book.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

New Paper by David Ainley, et al...

Antarctic Penguin Response to Habitat Change as Earth's Troposphere Reaches 2° C Above Preindustrial Levels

Click here to download

18 pages .pdf file

Friday, October 8, 2010

Another Image of the Eocene Penguin

Palaeontologist Rodolfo Salas shows the feathers of a giant fossilized penguin at Peru's Natural History Museum in Lima October 5, 2010. The preserved feathers and scales of the giant fossilized penguin, discovered on Peru's central coast and dated by paleontologists to 36 million years ago, provide a glimpse of Peru's Eocene period and how the species evolved to its modern state, paleontologists say. The ancient version of the marine bird was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall and weighed almost 60 kg (132 lb), dwarfing today's Empire Penguin, the largest of the modern-day species. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Paper on How Endangered Penguins Are Already Benefitting From Protection

Marine no-take zone rapidly benefits endangered penguin

  1. L. Pichegru1,*,
  2. D. Grémillet3,
  3. R. J. M. Crawford2,4 and
  4. P. G. Ryan1
+ Author Affiliations

  1. 1Percy FitzPatrick Institute, DST/NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

  2. 2Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

  3. 3Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CEFE UMR 5175, 1919 Route de Mende, 34 293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France

  4. 4Marine and Coastal Management, Department of Environmental Affairs, Private Bag X2, Rogge Bay 8012, South Africa
  1. *Author for correspondence (


No-take zones may protect populations of targeted marine species and restore the integrity of marine ecosystems, but it is unclear whether they benefit top predators that rely on mobile pelagic fishes. In South Africa, foraging effort of breeding African penguins decreased by 30 per cent within three months of closing a 20 km zone to the competing purse-seine fisheries around their largest colony. After the fishing ban, most of the penguins from this island had shifted their feeding effort inside the closed area. Birds breeding at another colony situated 50 km away, whose fishing grounds remained open to fishing, increased their foraging effort during the same period. This demonstrates the immediate benefit of a relatively small no-take zone for a marine top predator relying on pelagic prey. Selecting such small protected areas may be an important first conservation step, minimizing stakeholder conflicts and easing compliance, while ensuring benefit for the ecosystems within these habitats.

Source for full paper 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hello Inkayacu paracasensis!

Fossil body feathers of Inkayacu paracasensis. (Credit: University of Texas at Austin)

Fossilized Giant Penguin Reveals Unusual Colors, Sheds Light on Bird Evolution

ScienceDaily (Sep. 30, 2010) — Paleontologists have unearthed the first extinct penguin with preserved evidence of scales and feathers. The 36-million-year-old fossil from Peru shows the new giant penguin's feathers were reddish brown and grey, distinct from the black tuxedoed look of living penguins.

The new species, Inkayacu paracasensis, or Water King, was nearly five feet tall or about twice the size of an Emperor penguin, the largest living penguin today.

"Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colors and flipper shapes of ancient penguins. We had questions and this was our first chance to start answering them," said Julia Clarke, paleontologist at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences and lead author of a paper on the discovery in the Sept. 30 online edition of the journal Science.

The fossil shows the flipper and feather shapes that make penguins such powerful swimmers evolved early, while the color patterning of living penguins is likely a much more recent innovation.
Like living penguins and unlike all other birds, Inkayacu's wing feathers were radically modified in shape, densely packed and stacked on top of each other, forming stiff, narrow flippers. Its body feathers had broad shafts that in living penguins aid streamlining the body.

Bird feathers get some of their colors from the size, shape and arrangement of nanoscale structures called melanosomes. Matthew Shawkey and Liliana D'Alba, coauthors at the University of Akron, compared melanosomes recovered from the fossil to their extensive library of those from living birds to reconstruct the colors of the fossil penguin's feathers.

Melanosomes in Inkayacu were similar to those in birds other than living penguins, allowing the researchers to deduce the colors they produced. When the team looked at living penguins, they were surprised to find their colors were created by giant melanosomes, broader than in the fossil and in all other birds surveyed. They were also packed into groups that looked like clusters of grapes.

Why, the researchers wondered, did modern penguins apparently evolve their own special way to make black-brown feathers?

The unique shape, size and arrangement of living penguin melanosomes would alter the feather microstructure on the nano and micro scale, and melanin, contained within melanosomes, is known to give feathers resistance to wear and fracturing. Perhaps, the researchers speculate, these shifts might have had more to do with hydrodynamic demands of an aquatic lifestyle than with coloration. Penguin colors may have shifted for entirely different reasons related to the later origin of primary predators of extant penguins such as seals or other changes in late Cenozoic seas.

"Insights into the color of extinct organisms can reveal clues to their ecology and behavior," said coauthor Jakob Vinther at Yale University, who first noted fossil preservation of melanosomes in bird feathers. "But most of all, I think it is simply just cool to get a look at the color of a remarkable extinct organism, such as a giant fossil penguin."

Inkayacu paracasensis (een-kah-yah-koo par-ah-kah-sin-sis) was discovered by Peruvian student Ali Altamirano in Reserva Nacional de Paracas, Peru. Inkayacu's body length while swimming would have been about 1.5 meters (five feet), making it one of the largest penguins ever to have lived. When the team noticed scaly soft tissue preserved on an exposed foot, they nicknamed it "Pedro" after a sleazy or "escamoso" (scaly) character from a Colombian telenovela.

The latest discoveries add to earlier work by Clarke and her colleagues in Peru that challenges the conventional vision of early penguin evolution. Inkayacu and other finds show there was a rich diversity of giant penguin species in the late Eocene period (about 36 to 41 million years ago) of low-latitude Peru.
"This is an extraordinary site to preserve evidence of structures like scales and feathers," said Clarke. "So there's incredible potential for new discoveries that can change our view of not only penguin evolution, but of other marine vertebrates."

The National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation provided funding for the research.
The paper, "Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers," will appear later in a print edition of the journal. In addition to Clarke, Shawkey, Alba, Vinther and Altamirano, co-authors are Daniel T. Ksepka (North Carolina State University), Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi (Museo de Historia Natural-UNMSM), Thomas J. DeVries (Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture) and Patrice Baby (IRD and Université de Toulouse, France).

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by University of Texas at Austin, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Journal Reference:
  1. Julia A. Clarke, Daniel T. Ksepka, Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, Ali J. Altamirano, Matthew D. Shawkey, Liliana D’alba, Jakob Vinther, Thomas J. Devries, Patrice Baby. Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers. Science, September 30, 2010 DOI: 10.1126/science.1193604

University of Texas at Austin. "Fossilized Giant Penguin Reveals Unusual Colors, Sheds Light on Bird Evolution." ScienceDaily 30 September 2010. 1 October 2010 <­ /releases/2010/09/100930142716.htm>.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Penguin Expert Grant Ballard Relates the Current State of Penguins

September 28, 2010

Long Nights and Thin Ice: A Penguin’s Tale

A conversation with penguin expert Grant Ballard on the short-term wins and long-term losses facing one of the world’s most charismatic animals.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times — for penguins.

By Michael Todd

But like the French populace careening to apocalypse in Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” the final outcome for the Adèlie penguins that ecologist Grant Ballard studies will be dire.

Ballard, the director of the Informatics Program at PRBO Conservation Science in Point Reyes, Calif., has been studying the Adélies on Antarctica’s Ross Island since 1996. (A nonprofit, PRBO started in 1965 as Point Reyes Bird Observatory and now studies biodiversity conservation on land and sea.)

His research has determined that some colonies of Adèlies, those living near Ross Island, are going to be near-term winners of how climate change affects the world’s seventh continent. This will occur even as their peers on the Antarctic Peninsula 2,000 miles away face a punishing slog toward probable localized extinction.
“The colonies I study are doing very well right now,” Ballard explains, “and that’s nice, because they’re not doing so well in other parts of Antarctica, so it’s good that they’re doing well somewhere. We expect them to do so for a little time to come, but again, that depends on what climate model you choose. It could be as short as 20 years before they start facing some real challenges.”

Those challenges affect how they feed and breed, and in a land that really has no constituency among policymakers despite the charisma of its (few) denizens. But Adèlies are tough old birds, and they’ve survived past advances and retreats of the Antarctic ice sheet in the last 40 millennia or so.

“They’ve been able to adapt to large scale change previously,” Ballard notes. “If we could just give them a break, they may be able to do it again.” But the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, and a newfound interest in Antarctic fisheries by humankind, may be a double whammy the Adèlies can’t avoid.
Grant Ballard’s mentor, the renowned penguin expert David G. Ainley, has dubbed Adèlies the “bellwether of climate change,” in part because they are completely dependent on the continued existence of sea ice and in part because they have been well studied and so provide a good baseline for observing change. (Ainley even used the “Tale of Two Cities” analogy in discussing differing fates of colonies just on Ross Island.)

Penguins Antarctica
Click to enlarge

And while they too troop across ice fields, Adélies are not the marquee bird in the popular documentary The March of the Penguins; that role went to their tuxedoed cousin, the Emperor penguin. “Well studied” isn’t an easy proposition in the Antarctic, Ballard says, and no one had ever looked the Adelies’ entire migratory cycle before. “The fact that they’re out at sea, in the middle of pack ice, and it’s really dark, dangerous and expensive to study them at that time means that it hasn’t been done.”

The research he was part of — conducted between 2003 and 2005 by PRBO along with H.T. Harvey and Associates, Stanford University, NASA and the British Antarctic Survey, and funded by the National Science Foundation, Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Program in the Antarctic Sciences Division— involved fitting the birds with geolocator tags on their legs so the researchers could determine what the birds were up to, based on light levels and time, year-round, and not just in seasons congenial to human scientists. The results appear in the journal Ecology.

Modern technology helps, but is no panacea. You can rig the birds with satellite transmitters, as the researchers also did, but they’re big, bothersome to the bird, difficult to attach, often don’t work after a while and often pecked off or molted away. The much smaller geolocator tags are easier on the birds, and as long as they’re black and white they don’t automatically get pecked off, but they also require finding the same birds a year or two down the line to retrieve the tag and download its data. (The researchers are heading back this year for a closer look at individual bird behavior based on age and experience.)

Beyond the existential concerns, the research has uncovered some interesting information about the birds. Using ocean currents, Adèlies may make annual roundtrips of more than 8,000 miles, behavior the scientists think evolved as recently as the last ice age. And like many travelers, the birds hustle home on the return leg of the trip, moving about twice as fast as they go from their wintering location to their breeding spots.
“There’s a real urgency in what they did — they never waste any time,” says Ballard. “They’re at limits of what they can do — really in a hurry to get started, “to look for last year’s mate, to seek premium nest site. “Yeah,” he concludes, “I think they’re in a hurry to get home.”

That migration is the focus of concerns about the penguins’ long-term prospects in a warmer world.
The birds’ entire ecosystem revolves around ice, where it is and where it ain’t. When they’re foraging at sea, they need the ice as a place to rest and as a jumping-off and -in point for the buffet. These areas of open sea water surrounded by ice might, in summertime, see 15 to 20 percent ice cover; in the wintertime, as much as 80 percent.

But Adèlies raise their families on land, building nests of small stones on rocky outcrops and plains.
“It’s kind of a paradox for them,” Ballard acknowledges. “They reside in Antarctica, where there’s hardly any ice-free terrain, and yet they require that to nest.”

While that all suggests a rather fiddly species, Adèlies have shown themselves pretty robust.
Some boom-and-bust in their colonies has always occurred, and the birds’ natural curiosity, their tendency to explore, has served them well. “There’s a certain percentage of the population that’s always out there looking for a new opportunity, and they will settle in a place that looks like a good idea even if there are no penguins there,” Ballard says, adding, “and there’s usually a reason there’s no penguins there.”

However, those “test” colonies may be well placed for changing times.

While such flexibility may sound sensible to people, it surprised scientists. In another recent paper looking at Adèlies at Ross, researchers — including Ballard  from PRBO, Ainley with H.T. Harvey, Oregon State University and Landacre Research New Zealand — documented penguins abandoning their traditional nesting sites when times there grew too hard.

“Witnessing large numbers of adult birds who have already successfully nested in one location switching to a new site in the face of environmental change has rarely been documented and is indeed surprising,” Oregon State’s Kate Dugger is quoted in a release.

While that sounds reassuring for penguins and their partisans, there’s a caveat. “Like animals living near the tops of mountains,” Dugger cautions, “polar animals have limited options if the planet warms beyond a certain point.”

In that vein, researchers are watching these adventuresome penguins wend their way south, toward the South Pole.

With warming, he said, those that are moving farther south will be the ones that find a new place that’s got the newest open water and the least competition for food and they’ll probably thrive. … “At some point — and it might be very close to where they are now, but we don’t know — they won’t be able to overcome that difference that they have to cover to get back to the wintering ground.”

Ballard says he thinks the birds could waddle the distance, but the associated risks and effort of jumping in and out of sea ice will create a limit. “They won’t adapt endlessly — I believe they’ve never ever been more than 20 or 30 kilometers south of where they are now,” he says, using mummified remains dating back 35,000 to 40,000 years as his boundary line.

The distance south also creates another problem for the birds — wintertime darkness in a place where the night is half a year long. The penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula are moving south to find sea ice in the winter, which puts them in longer and longer periods of darkness.

“But they also require light,” Ballard says. “They require light for navigating, and we think they require it for some aspects of foraging, although we don’t know for sure exactly why they need light because they forage very deep where it’s very dark. It seems they need to initiate dives when there’s at least some light.
“We know from other studies that they don’t move around at all when it’s dark or seriously overcast, so it seems they require some amount of sun or some concept of where the sun is to make long-distance migrations.”
“Ultimately penguins around Antarctica will face darkness or lack of ice — they’ll just reach that boundary from different directions,” he has said.

But in the Ross Sea, these are actually pretty good times for Adèlies since the hole in the ozone layer — remember that? — creates upper atmosphere cooling, which increases winds, which increases sea ice. Ballard calls it a “giant ice generator,” and as long as temperatures remain above freezing, it will likely remain one.

“People expect the ice to be going away, and fast, but in the Ross Sea it isn’t — yet. However, we do expect to in 20 years, or it could be 40 years, depending on which models you look at, we expect we’ll start seeing a decline in sea ice again, in the Ross Sea.”

The Antarctic, a continent, is not the Arctic, an oceanic system, despite their shared frigidity. Antarctica is holding a huge amount of landlocked ice, which is mostly reflecting sunlight back, which slows the rate of loss. The peninsula, however, is already seeing loss of sea ice.

“It’s a situation much more similar to the Arctic, and in those areas Adèlie penguins are disappearing already.” Flooding caused by warmer temperatures has been especially harmful for penguin chicks, which can’t yet “thermo-regulate” when they’re wet. In one case, a 2001 snowfall — although cold as heck, Antarctica is usually pretty dry and therefore not particularly snowy — was so big it buried thousands of adults on their nests. A similar freakish blizzard came in 2006, but it was later in the season and less devastating.

Although freakish, the historical record — based on mummified penguins — shows that weird weather like giant blizzards and giant icebergs and even localized appearances and disappearances of Adèlies has occurred before. Disappearances on the Antarctic Peninsula, at least of small colonies struggling in less optimal places, are occurring now, as ecologist Bill Fraser has documented (and The New Yorker‘s Fen Montaigne reported on in December.)

But climate change isn’t the only human-caused woe for the birds.
“They have other challenges with fisheries coming in more and more now, too,” Ballard says. “There’s sort of the double whammy of climate change and increased human extraction, especially with fisheries. The penguins [which eat krill, small fish and squid] don’t necessarily compete directly with the fishermen, but the ecosystem as a whole does. We’re concerned about what happens to the system when you start removing — as we have everywhere — the top predators, the big fish.”

Ballard and the other researchers are providing information to a member of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the one organization with the statutory authority to create non-fishing areas off Antarctica. The convention is planning to examine that possibility in the spring. The researchers have also provided information to the nongovernmental organization the Antarctica and South Ocean Coalition, which supports a marine protected area for the Ross Sea, as this video titled “The Ross Sea, Antarctica” suggests.*

While Ballard isn’t taking a public position on what the convention should do, because the Antarctic is pretty much the last accessible place on Earth that hasn’t been completely altered by humanity, he is concerned about a potential loss that echoes beyond Adèlie colonies.

“From a scientific perspective, it’s a tragedy to lose this place, last reference point.” Ballard laments. “From a cultural perspective, a human value perspective, I think people can understand it’s probably not a good idea to destroy every ecosystem on the planet.”

*The Antarctica and South Ocean Coalition supports marine protected area status for the Ross Sea ice shelf. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said they had not yet taken a stand.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn

Adele penguins jumping off of iceberg. Antarctica. (Credit: iStockphoto/Keith Szafranski)

Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn

ScienceDaily (Sep. 9, 2010) — Penguin biologists from around the world, who are gathered in Boston the week of September 6, warn that ten of the planet's eighteen penguin species have experienced further serious population declines. The effects of climate change, overfishing, chronic oil pollution and predation by introduced mammals are among the major factors cited repeatedly by penguin scientists as contributing to these population drops. Prior to the conference, thirteen of these penguin species were already classified as endangered or threatened. Some penguin species may face extinction in this century.

More than 180 penguin biologists, government officials, conservation advocates, and zoo and aquarium professionals from 22 nations have convened in Boston for the five day International Penguin Conference, which is being hosted this year by the New England Aquarium. The conference is held every three to four years, and this is the first time that it has been held in the Northern Hemisphere.

Penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere with a single species on the Galapagos Islands at the Equator to four Antarctic penguin species that are most well known to the public, yet 13 other species also live in South America, southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and on the many sub-Antarctic islands. Throughout their ranges, nearly all of penguin species are in significant decline or under duress due to a host of common factors.

Climate Change Concerns

The effects of climate change on different penguin species has been the topic of many of the scientists's papers and presentations. Many penguin species are highly dependent on small schooling fish for food. These masses of anchovies, sardines and other small finfish are seasonally brought to many penguin habitats by cold water currents. In years with El Nino events in the Pacific, there has been a dramatic warming of sea surface temperatures which effectively blocked cold water currents coming up the western coast of South America. Consequently, Galapagos penguins and Humboldt penguins, which are found on the coasts of Peru and Chile, have suffered due to reduced food availability, which principally affects the survival of the young. Galapagos penguins stand a 30% probability of becoming extinct in this century and Humboldt penguins have been classified by the Peruvian government as endangered.

Earlier this year, African penguins, found in Namibia and South Africa, were reclassified internationally as endangered as many breeding colonies in the western part of their range have disappeared. Important food bearing cold water currents have shifted and are now routinely found much further offshore. The increased roundtrip commuting distance for African penguins to obtain food has been devastating to their population.
Scientists are closely watching the potential effects on several Antarctic penguin species that are highly dependent on the presence of sea ice for breeding, foraging and molting. Emperor penguins, which were the subject of "March of the Penguins," could see major population declines by 2100, if they do not adapt, migrate and change the timing of their growth stages.

Adelie penguin colonies in the Antarctic's Ross Sea have coped for several years with two super-sized icebergs that have grounded there and created an enormous physical barrier. It has resulted in lower breeding rates and the migration of many animals out of the area.

Sea ice also creates an important nursey cover for juvenile krill which feed on ice algae. Krill is the primary fuel at the base the Antarctic food chain. Reduced sea ice cover has led to a dramtic decline in krill and will likely lead to a decline in many wildlife populations further up the food chain that relies on krill as its foundation food source.

The effects of climate change on penguins are very real. Many environmental conditions are changing and much less predictable. For penguins living in harsh conditions, the ability to properly time when to migrate, nest, mate and seek food are critical decisions often with a very small margin for error, both for both individual animals and entire species.

 Overfishing and Bycatch 

As fishing efforts around the globe have multipled several fold over the last few decades, penguins are now competing with people for enough food. The large scale harvesting of anchovy and sardine stocks have directly reduced the prey available to many penguin species including Macaroni and Chinstrap penguins in the South Atlantic. Combined with the effects of climate change on the locations of fish stocks, reduced food availability leads to higher starvation rates, increased vulnerabilty to disease and lower breeding success.
Thousands of penguins are also killed annually when caught in fixed fishing nets.
Chronic Oiling

Large scale oil spills make worlwide headlines, but chronic petroleum pollution has killed thousands of penguins particularly off the coasts of South America and South Africa. The most common sources are illegal operational dumping from ships, long term leaks from sunken ships and some land-based discharges. Better legislation and law enforcement efforts can yield positive results. The incidence of oiling of Magellanic penguins off the coast of Argentina has decline signficantly in recent years due to increased public awareness and enforcement.

Introduced Mammalian Predators

Many penguin species evolved in extremely remote settings devoid of any mammal predators.. Prior to the arrival of humans, New Zealand's only mammals were bats. Now, introduced weasels have had a large impact on the the small populations of Yellow-Eyed and Fiordland penguins. In Australia and Argentina, the arrival of foxes have had impacts while feral cats in the Galapagos have reduced penguin populations there.
The goal of the 7th International Penguin Conference is to present ongoing research, identify current and emerging conservations issues and create action plans that will help create a strategic global effort on behalf of these threatened species.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by New England Aquarium, via Newswise.

New England Aquarium. "Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn." ScienceDaily 9 September 2010. 10 September 2010 <­ /releases/2010/09/100906145115.htm>.

Hump-backed dinosaur may yield clues to origin of birds

Hump-backed dinosaur may yield clues to origin of birds

Artist's impression (Ortega/Sanz)  
The dinosaur had a hump over its pelvis and attachment bumps for feathers on its forearms
Spanish palaeontologists have uncovered a new dinosaur with what may be the earliest evidence of feather follicles.
The researchers, whose findings are published in Nature, located the fossils near Cuenca, central Spain.
They named the reptile Concavenator corcovatus, meaning "meat eater from Cuenca with a hump". The type of dinosaur that was found is known as a theropod.
Theropods are mainly known from the ancient southern landmass, Gondwana.
Over time, Gondwana and other ancient landmasses broke up, forming the continents we see today.

Fossil and modern bones (Ortega/Sanz)  
Five bumps were found on the fossil arm bones (top) whereas modern birds such as the turkey vulture (bottom) have eight to 10.
Recently a team from Cambridge, UK, and the US showed that the theropods may have originated in the Northern landmass, Laurasia.
The most primitive forms have been found in England and now Spain. These finds date from the Lower Cretaceous, somewhere between 100 and 146 million years ago
Theropods are a very important group of dinosaurs because it is from this group that birds are known to originate. Most theropods, like the one found in Spain, are meat-eaters, though some were omnivores.
"They are a very important group of dinosaurs because within this group there are the birds. This world would not be the same without birds. Birds are really a kind of specialised winged and flying theropod dinosaur," said Professor Jose Sanz of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.
The dinosaur's unusual skeleton included a hump over the ilium - where the hind legs join the spine - and around five bumps on the forearm.

"This world would not be the same without birds. Birds are really a kind of specialised winged and flying theropod dinosaur” said Professor Jose Sanz Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.

These bumps closely resemble the attachment points for feathers found in modern birds, and might present evidence that feathers are much older, in evolutionary terms, than previously thought.
The fossil dates from a time period when feathers or feather-like appendages have been seen, but the dinosaur is from a branch of the evolutionary tree that is more primitive.
Although these bumps have been seen in dinosaurs before - including Velociraptor, it is interesting and new to find this characteristic in a dinosaur that is so far removed from either birds or previous known feathered dinosaurs.
The bumps are very similar to those in present-day birds, with just two differences. There are fewer bumps in the Concavenator and they are not in such a regular arrangement.
The team interpret these differences in evolutionary terms. They suggest that over evolutionary time the bumps could have evolved into the feather attachments that are found in modern birds.
The hump found on the dinosaur's spine is more of a mystery, however. Humps are common in dinosaurs, and can be used for heat regulation - when they might look like a kind of sail - for display, or for food storage.

Scientists and fossil (Ortega/Sanz)  
The scientists from Madrid uncovered the bones in Cuenca, central Spain
The team cannot work out what this hump might be for, though.
It is probably not for heat regulation, since normally a hump of this type would need an extensive blood supply, and there would be evidence within the surrounding bone - the team did not find this.
Also, most previous dinosaur humps have been found around the shoulders or the centre of the back - this hump is further towards the tail.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Penguin Project Milestones

Hi penguin lovers-

The penguins will be returning starting about September 7th to Punta Tombo so the field crew will be taking off to meet the penguins shortly. We are starting the 28th year of following the penguins and their lives. I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the milestones that we have passed along the way. None of this would be possible without the long-term support of people that care about penguins, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and all our volunteers.


P. Dee Boersma Ph.D
Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science
Dept of Biology
University of Washington
24 Kincaid Hall
Box 351800
Seattle WA 98195-1800  USA

penguin project milestones

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review--The Tourist Trail by John Yunker

Yunker, John. The Tourist Trail. Byte Level Books, 2010. Reviewed by Lin Kerns August 27, 2010.


I feel privileged.

A while back, I became acquainted with one John Yunker through his online short story, "The Tourist Trail." I was impressed with his thoughtful prose, even then. When John told me that he was expanding the short story into a novel, I became excited. Finally--someone who can write and who knows their penguins. Truly a novel mix.

A couple weeks ago, John sent me a copy of his new novel and although I had other commitments at the time, I eyed the book, trailed my hand along the cover, peeked at John's autograph on the first page... I allowed the book to tease me with anticipation. At the first opportunity, I grabbed the book, made a pot of coffee, put the computer on "sleep," and then settled in on the couch to indulge in, what I hoped, was a good read.

Consensus: I couldn't put the book down; I devoured it in two days.

The plot: The story is populated by 4 major characters--Angela, Aeneas, Robert/Jake, and Ethan. Angela studies, counts, and tags Magellanic Penguins at the Punte Verde Preserve; although she loves her profession, she doesn't realize the vastness of the void in her life until she meets a raft-wrecked Aeneas. She follows Aeneas back to his ship and learns the largest lesson of her life. Robert/Jake works for the FBI and he is hot on the trail of Aeneas, who roves the seas in order to cause havoc and mayhem to would be whalers. Robert has a past, which becomes significant as the story moves towards a convergence of all the characters. Ethan is the young man who searches for meaning and purpose in his life; what he discovers will alter his life irrevocably.

Of course, the backdrop of the main storyline is inhabited by penguins and whales. Be prepared for a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye as your read how horrible the conditions are when these creatures meet their end at the hands of fishermen and whalers.John's perspective is a personal one and you are right there with him to see it all.

Overall, The Tourist Trail is a testament to how humans and the inhabitants of the sea interact and affect one another. As the characters learn and adapt, so does the reader. I promise that you will finish the book with a different perspective regarding our responsibility to life in the sea. John's prose is effective, succinct, and definitive. You will know these characters he has created and you will live their lives until the final page.

Let us hope that John Yunker will continue to write and gift us with his thoughtful insight; he is decidedly an author to watch. I also hope that The Tourist Trail will garner the eye of a Hollywood producer. I eagerly anticipate this novel converted to the big screen. Indeed, the book would be perfect for a big budget flick and the message within would touch so many more lives.

If that happens, I'll buy the popcorn.


(You can purchase this book HERE)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Prehistoric Penguins

Waimanu, the first penguin

How long have penguins been around?  I suspect that most people would respond that they seem relatively young, in the grand scheme of things.  Penguins are so unique, and they seem particularly modern because of their constant presence in ads and movies.  There is also that constant mental association with icy environments that makes it hard to picture them along a steamy Paleocene coastline.

Waimanu is currently the oldest known penguin, and it is an ancient taxon indeed.  The rocks containing the Waimanu manneringi holotype skeleton are an astounding 61.6 million years old, far and away the oldest to produce penguin bones. A close relative, the smaller Waimanu tuatahi is found in rocks 58-60 million years old. To put this in perspective, these penguins lived just 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs (except for birds of course).
The first fossils of this taxon were collected almost 20 years ago by Al Mannering, in whose honor the first species is named.  Both come from the Waipara Greensand, a unit of sedimentary rocks laid down in nearshore waters during the Paleocene in present down North Canterbury.  During the Paleocene, this area of the South Island of New Zealand was submerged, and penguins, plankton and shellfish often became entombed in the dark sandy sediments upon death. Millions of years later, these rocks and their trove of fossils were exposed as tectonic forces lifted the ancient seafloor up to the sun and the Waipara River cut away the overlying layers.

These early penguins inherited a world in which a reset button had been firmly pressed. It was warm, rather homogenous in temperature across most of the latitudinal gradient, and most importantly, nearly every major niche was hung generously with “help wanted” signs.  For much of the Mesozoic, dinosaurs dominated terrestrial ecosystems and large marine reptiles occupied the aquatic tetrapod predator niche.  Mosasaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs swam the seas worldwide.  But at the end of the Cretaceous, an asteroid impact wiped out all of these groups.  Even sharks were decimated, though of course some survived to re-supply our oceans and imaginations with toothed nightmares.

This extinction spelled opportunity for many groups.  Mammals radiated into the void left by dinosaurs, and some dinosaurs got a new opportunity.  The volant (flying) ancestors of penguins had a window in which the seas were free of largely free of competitors and low on predators.  This was a perfect time to drop flight altogether.  By 60million years ago, Waimanu manneringi and Waimanu tuatahi, two closely related species, had reached this critical stage in penguin evolution.

A reconstruction of Waimanu tuatahi from Slack et al. (2006).

Waimanu is both amazingly penguin-like and amazingly primitive.  Waimanu manneringi was a healthy size, about halfway between a King Penguin and an Emperor Penguin in standing height, while Waimanu tuatahi was a bit smaller, about 2 1/2 feet (80cm) tall. Waimanu manneringi is only known from a single hindlimb and pelvis, while specimens of Waimanu tuatahi is much more complete – multiple specimens together combine to give us almost the entire skeleton.  From head to toe, the skeleton of Waimanu combines primitive and derived characters.  The skull exhibits the long, narrow beak seen in other early fossil penguins rather than a stubbier modern penguin beak.  The flipper is much shorter than the wing of a flighted bird, but significantly longer relative to the body than in living penguins (indicating it would have a lower wing load).  The bones are also more flattened than flighted birds but less flattened than living penguins, which have highly compressed bones to form a more knife-like wing profile.  In the hindlimb, Waimanu is very close to modern penguins.  The shape of the limb bones indicate an upright posture like modern penguins employ, and the feet are short and stubby.  So Waimanu walked like a penguin on land, swam like a less-efficient penguin in the water, and probably ate the same basic foods (perhaps a little fish heavy).  There is a lot more to say about these fascinating species, but I will await some upcoming work by the Waimanu team to cover that story.

In closing, I should point out that the title of this post is actually a bit inaccurate. Waimanu manneringi is in fact the oldest penguin we know of. But, it is highly unlikely it was actually the first penguin.  The rock record is incomplete, and there is a roughly 10 million year gap between Waimanu tuatahi and the next oldest penguin fossil, showing we are missing big pieces of penguin history – probably on both sides of the 60 million year mark.

The closest relatives of penguins that are alive today are the Procellariiformes, the group that includes albatrosses and petrels.  These birds are commonly called tubenoses because their nostrils take the form of short tubes instead of flat openings. Most likely, the penguin lineage and the tubenose lineage split off from one another and started on their own evolutionary paths deeper in time, perhaps even during the Cretaceous Period. At this deep split, the birds heading off along the evolutionary trajectories to modern penguins and modern petrel probably looked a lot more like a petrel than a penguin – certainly volant (capable of flight) and probably with a similar ecology to some modern tubenose birds.  Whether we would call the bird on the penguin side of the split a “penguin” is debatable – it would probably be very hard for us to recognize a fossil penguin in the rock record until, like Waimanu, they evolved  a flightless lifestyle.  So, pending the discovery of a mind-bending fossil of a flying penguin, we’ll let Waimanu revel in its place in the sun.

References: Slack, K.E., C.M. Jones, T. Ando, G.L. Harrison, R.E. Fordyce, U. Arnason, and D. Penny. 2006. Early Penguin Fossils, Plus Mitochondrial Genomes, Calibrate Avian Evolution. Molecular Biology and Evolution 23: 1144-1155.


Fossil Penguins

Waimanu - 60-million year old penguins from New Zealand

R Ewan Fordyce

An online article recently published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution (March 2006) recognises a new genus of ancient penguin (Waimanu) from New Zealand rocks some 60-62 million years old. The ancient penguins lived in shallow seas off eastern New Zealand in Paleocene times, only a few million years after the extinction of dinosaurs. These "proto" penguins were about the size of living yellow-eyed penguins. They probably looked a bit like shags (cormorants), but had compressed and dense wing bones, allowing wings to be used to swim underwater. It is most unlikely that the Waimanu penguins could fly in air. These fossils are a little older than archaic penguins from Tierra del Fuego, documented by Dr Julia Clarke and coauthors (2003), and are the oldest fossil penguins reported from New Zealand.

Waimanu Paleocene_penguin
The reconstruction shown here, by Chris Gaskin, is © Geology Museum, University of Otago.
Waimanu humerus
Ewan Fordyce shows the position of the humerus, or upper wing bone, on a reconstruction of Waimanu tuatahi.
Photo by R Ewan Fordyce; reconstruction ©Geology Musuem, University of Otago.
Waimanu reconstruction
Reconstruction by G. Gaskin, showing 3 individuals of Waimanu tuatahi on a New Zealand beach in Paleocene times, 58-60 million years ago. Reconstruction ©Geology Museum, University of Otago.

Because the Waimanu penguins are well dated in terms of geological age, it is possible to use that known age to calibrate a new molecular phylogeny - or pattern of relationships - for living birds. The phylogeny shows a branching pattern of bird relationships based on study of genetic material from a range of living birds such as storks, albatrossses, ducks and moas. By using the dates from the fossil Waimanu penguins as a calibration point, we can then predict how far back in time the other groups of living birds originated. If early penguins lived in southern seas not long after the extinction of dinosaurs, then other bird groups more distantly related to penguins must have been established even earlier.

The study suggests that many groups of living birds originated well back in Cretaceous times, when dinosaurs were thriving - thus, many modern lineages had ancient origins. Such a notion conflicts with an idea suggested by Professor Alan Feduccia (1995, 2003), who suggested that many living bird groups are geologically young, and mostly represent groups that arose after dinosaurs went extinct.

Feduccia argued that most birds from Cretaceous times - from the age of dinosaurs - were ancient lineages not related to living forms. He suggested that those ancient bird groups disappeared, along with dinosaurs, in a turnover at the catastrophic "KT boundary" extinction 65 million years ago. Feduccia also suggested that there was a complete new evolutionary radiation of "modern" birds following the KT extinction.

Now, the new study which combines fossils and molecular approaches, predicts that "modern" birds thrived in the age of dinosaurs. We expect that the fossil record will continue to produce the hard evidence of those birds.

Details of title and authorship

Early Penguin Fossils, plus Mitochondrial Genomes, Calibrate Avian Evolution Kerryn E. Slack1 , Craig M. Jones2 , Tatsuro Ando3 , G. L. (Abby) Harrison4, R. Ewan Fordyce3, Ulfur Arnason5, and David Penny4
  1. Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution Institute of Molecular BioSciences Massey University Palmerston North New Zealand; Division of Evolutionary Molecular Systematics Department of Cell and Organism Biology University of Lund Solvegatan 29 S-223 62 Lund Sweden
  2. Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Lower Hutt New Zealand
  3. Department of Geology, University of Otago Dunedin New Zealand
  4. Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution Institute of Molecular BioSciences Massey University Palmerston North New Zealand
  5. Division of Evolutionary Molecular Systematics Department of Cell and Organism Biology University of Lund Solvegatan 29 S-223 62 Lund Sweden
The first specimen of Waimanu was found in the 1980s, by Brad Field (then of NZ Geological Survey), and was passed to Ewan Fordyce for study. Craig Jones prepared the specimen - now curated in the Geology Museum of University of Otago - while working for Fordyce as a technician. Fordyce and Jones (1990) later published some details of the first fossil. Subsequently, Al Mannering (of Christchurch, affiliated with Canterbury Museum) discovered more Paleocene penguins (Jones and Mannering 1997) which Mannering prepared; those fossils are curated in Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. Most recently, the Waimanu fossils have been studied in detail by Geology graduate student Tatsuro Ando, as part of his PhD studies at University of Otago. Al Mannering's sterling efforts of collecting and preparation are honoured in the name of one of the species, Waimanu manneringi.
For details of molecular studies, contact Professor David Penny of Massey University.


Clarke, J. A., Olivero, E. B., and Puerta, P. 2003. Description of the earliest fossil penguin from South America and first Paleogene vertebrate locality of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. American Museum Novitates (3423): 1-18.
Feduccia, A. 1995. Explosive evolution in Tertiary birds and mammals. Science 267 (5198): 637-8.
Feduccia, A. 2003. 'Big bang' for tertiary birds? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 18 (4): 172-176.
Fordyce, R. E. and Jones, C. M. 1990. The history of penguins, and new fossil penguin material from New Zealand. Pages 419-446 in Davis, L. S. and Darby, J. D. (editors), Penguin biology. Academic Press, San Diego. 467 p.
Jones, C. M. and Mannering, A. 1997. New Paleocene fossil bird material from the Waipara Greensand, North Canterbury, New Zealand. Geological Society of New Zealand miscellaneous publication 95a: 88.
Simpson, G. G. 1971. A review of the pre-Pliocene penguins of New Zealand. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 144: 321-378.


The first fossil penguin – Palaeeudyptes antarcticus Huxley 1859, from Kakanui, North Otago

By R.Ewan Fordyce

The first fossil penguin recognised to science was an incomplete but dramatically large ankle bone from Kakanui, in coastal Otago. The bone was acquired by Government Agent Walter Mantell during his travel along the Otago coast in late 1848, and was sent to Britain where it was studied by the pre-eminent paleontologist T.H. Huxley. Huxley announced the find in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in March 1859. There he identified the bone as from a new genus and species of penguin which he named Palaeeudyptes antarcticus – literally, ancient winged diver of the south. The ankle bone or tarsometatarsus is perhaps the single most distinctive bone in penguins and, had he been presented with some other bone, Huxley might have found it more difficult to convince people that the fossil was from a penguin.

Huxley woodcut 1859
Huxley's original illustration of the ankle bone is reproduced here. The left figure shows a front view; the right figure, the back view. One trochlea, or projection for a toe, is missing – from the right side of the front view.

penguin bones
Illustrations of penguin bones produced for James Hector's 1872 article on fossil penguins.
Within a few decades, other fossil penguin bones were reported from New Zealand, both from North Otago and from Westland. Again, the bones clearly represented species larger than those of today. Because of their size, the fossils were thought to represent more individuals of Huxley's new species, Palaeeudyptes antarcticus. However, no ankle bones were known amongst the new specimens, and it could not be confirmed that all the fossils really did represent the one species. Indeed, despite 150 years of field work, no more material of Huxley's species has been found – the species Palaeeudyptes antarcticus is indeed known from one incomplete bone. So, the name can be used confidently only for the one fossil which resides in a drawer in the Natural History Museum, London. Finally, we aren’t even sure of the age of the fossil; it is probably from the soft white Ototara Limestone which, at Kakanui, spans the Eocene/Oligocene boundary – in the range 32-34 M years. However, the bone could be from the harder and younger Otekaike Limestone, with an age of perhaps 23-24 M years.

The lack of complete specimens was not going to spoil a good story. The early finds quickly led to speculation that ancient penguins were giants, with body heights perhaps reaching "eight feet" (about 2.4 m). In 1975, renowned fossil penguin expert G.G. Simpson reviewed penguin body size, and concluded that even the most massive New Zealand penguin, Pachydyptes ponderosus, was much smaller - at 1.43-1.62 m.

Other new discoveries from the Waitaki Valley region show that there was quite a range of body size represented amongst penguins – not all were giants. Species of Platydyptes, for example, probably stood a little taller than a living yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), and several fossils of tiny penguins – the size of little blues (Eudyptula minor) are known.

Our collections of penguin fossils are under study by PhD student Tatsuro Ando, as part of his research on the origin of penguin flight.

Remarkably complete skeletons of Palaeeudyptes-like penguins are sometimes on display in the Geology Museum, University of Otago. (The Geology Museum is open to the public 9am – 5 pm weekdays; access is via the Quadrangle.) Less complete but equally large specimens also may be seen at Otago Museum.

There are significant displays in North Otago that relate to fossil penguins. A poster reviewing these birds is in the Blue Penguin Visitor Centre in Oamaru. Interpretive graphics, casts and original fossils are displayed in the Vanished World Centre, Duntroon.

Tatsuro Ando studying fossil and modern penguin skulls.

Cast of Mantell's original ankle bone on the left; original fossil of a Palaeeudyptes-like penguin on the right. Both specimens from Geology Museum, University of Otago.

References for further reading

  • Fordyce, R.E. and Jones, C.M. 1990. The history of penguins…. Pages 419-446 in Davis, L.S. and Darby, J.D. (editors), Penguin biology. Academic Press, San Diego. 467 p.
  • Gaskin, C. and Peat, N. 1991. The world of penguins. Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland. 48 p. (Non-technical.)
  • Hector, J. 1872. On the remains of a gigantic penguin (Palaeeudyptes antarcticus, Huxley) from the Tertiary rocks on the west coast of Nelson. Transactions and proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 4: 341-346.
  • Huxley, T.H. 1859. On a fossil bird and a fossil cetacean from New Zealand. Quarterly journal of the Geological Society of London 15: 670-677.
  • Marples, B.J. 1952. Early Tertiary penguins of New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey paleontology bulletin 20: 66 p.
  • Peat, N. 1992. Penguins from the past. Forest and bird 23 (1, February): 32-34. (Non-technical.)
  • Simpson, G.G. 1975. Fossil penguins. Pages 19-41 in Stonehouse, B. (editor), The biology of penguins. MacMillan, London. 555 p.
  • Simpson, G.G. 1976. Penguins past and present, here and there. Yale University Press, New Haven. 150 p. (This is an excellent introductory text.)