29 Feb 2012

Fossilised bones reveal giant prehistoric penguin

11:32 am on 29 February 2012

After millions of years buried in a hillside, then decades gathering dust in geological displays, the fossilised bones of a giant penguin have been pieced together to reveal a goliath of the bird world.

The 1.3 metre bird - much taller and slimmer than modern penguins - inhabited New Zealand 25 million years ago, scientists say.


Researchers have given the bird the Maori name kairuku, or diver who returns with food.

Professor Ewan Fordyce of Otago University discovered a fossilised kairuku in a cliff near Waimate cliff in 1977, when he was a PhD student.

Those fossils have been part of the international effort at Otago University to reconstruct the bird.

Professor Fordyce says the reconstruction has been made from three fossilised partial skeletons.

He told Morning Reoprt the kairuku was an impressive and lovely bird with longer wings and shorter legs than penguins that exist today.

He says work has been ongoing since the earliest discovery and just a few months ago more of another kairuku specimen was collected from near Waimate.

Scientist Dan Ksepka of North Carolina State University, who is involved in the project, says most of New Zealand was underwater at the time the bird existed, leaving isolated, rocky land masses that kept the penguins safe from potential predators and provided them with lots of food.