17 Sep 2021

Schoolkids' penguin fossil find an entirely new species

From Morning Report, 7:58 am on 17 September 2021

A 30-million-year-old penguin fossil has been identified as a completely new species, 15 years after it was discovered by school kids.

The Penguin fossil uncovered by the JUNATS after being cut out of the ground.

 The Penguin fossil after being cut out of the ground. Photo: Supplied/Mike Safey

Massey University researchers said the bird, while closely related to another giant penguin, appears to be just a bit more leggy. 

The preserved remains were first found by the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club in 2006 during summer camp.

While scouring the shoreline of the Kāwhia Harbour they found something strange poking out of the rock.

It was normal to find the fossils of wormy-things or shellfish, but the group knew this was something special.

A month later a team comprised of people associated with the club and a fossil expert timed a trip with the tides and arrived in a tin boat full of tools to cut the preserved remains out of the ground.

The JUNATS group getting the fossil out.

The mission to cut the fossil out of the ground. Photo: Supplied/Mike Safey

Since then there's been a 3D replica made and gifted to the club while the original is safely displayed at Waikato Museum.

But 15 years on the discovery is still making the news.

Researchers at Massey University who studied the fossil have revealed it as a entirely new species, the Kairuku waewaeroa.

Penguin fossils can date almost as far back as the dinosaurs, the oldest of which have been found in Aotearoa.

Vertebrate Zoology senior lecturer Daniel Thomas said this one is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old - from when much of the Waikato was under water.

The Kairuku waewaeroa is closely related to the Kairuku, a giant diving penguin, but Thomas said it had one key difference.

"The second part of its name is waewaeroa, and waewaeroa is referencing the long legs of this one," he said.

"So that's actually distinctive about this penguin and what gives it part of its giant height.

"When we compare this bird to its close relatives and to other giant penguins, it's actually a bit strange, it appears to have incredibly tall legs."

Thomas said because most of the bones were intact, scientists can tell it would have stood at least 1.4m tall.

This incredible discovery and research paints a very interesting picture of what ancient Zealandia would have been like and how that connects to New Zealand today, he said.

"We invest a lot of thought, a lot of conservation effort towards our penguins.

"We recognise that actually, potentially they are the descendants of something that this group that's been part of Zealandia for a very long time."

Steffan Safey, who was 13 when the fossil was uncovered in 2006, said looking back on the day was still pretty special.

The fossil discovered by the JUNATS group before being cut from the ground.

The fossil in the ground. Photo: Supplied/Mike Safey

He didn't think the story would have such an important twist.

"Finding the small fossils obviously was rewarding but finding something like this is pretty incredible.

"Like I kind of thought we had reached the end of the road of what this fossil was going to achieve but yeah, a brand-new species."

Mike Safey, President of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, said it was a rare privilege for the kids and something they would always remember, but made sweeter by the latest news.

"It's a real special adventure that kids go on and they just remember, for their whole lives and I'm sure there'll be stoked when the media release comes out to know that, hey, we were part of that."