Monster penguins that lived in New Zealand 62 million years ago had doppelgangers in Japan, the USA and Canada, according to a new study.
For the study published Monday in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, scientists identified similarities between the penguins’ fossilized bones and those of a group of much younger Northern Hemisphere birds, known as plotopterids.
These similarities suggest plotopterids and ancient penguins looked quite similar and could give scientists insight into how the birds began to use their wings to swim instead of fly.
The earliest known penguins swam in tropical seas that almost submerged the land we currently know as New Zealand. Paleontologists discovered the fossilized bones of these ancient waddlers, some of which were as large as 5-feet-tall, at Waipara, North Canterbury.
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Plotopterids developed in the Northern Hemisphere about 37 to 34 million years ago, researchers say, and they’ve been found at sites in North America and Japan.
When scientists compared the fossilized bones of plotopterids with fossils of the giant penguin species from Canterbury Museum’s collection, they found that both had similar long beaks with slit-like nostrils, chest and shoulder bones, and wings.
“What’s remarkable about all this is that plotopterids and ancient penguins evolved these shared features independently,” said Vanessa De Pietri, a curator at Canterbury Museum, in a statement. “This is an example of what we call convergent evolution, when distantly related organisms develop similar morphological traits under similar environmental conditions.”
Although they shared these physical traits with ancient and modern penguins, plotopterids are more closely related to gannets and cormorants than they are to penguins.
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“These birds evolved in different hemispheres, millions of years apart, but from a distance you would be hard-pressed
to tell them apart,” Paul Scofield, a Canterbury Museum curator, said. “Plotopterids looked like penguins, they swam like penguins, they probably ate like penguins — but they weren’t penguins.”