Monday, January 28, 2008

Giant Penguin Found: Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness Vindicated?

"On the barren shore, and on the lofty ice barrier in the background, myriads of grotesque penguins squawked and flapped their fins, while many fat seals were visible on the water, swimming or sprawling across large cakes of slowly drifting ice. "

"For it was only a penguin - albeit of a huge, unknown species larger than the greatest of the known king penguins, and monstrous in its combined albinism and virtual eyelessness. "

The late Eocene giant penguin Icadyptes salasi (right) and the middle Eocene Perudyptes devriesi (left) are shown to scale with a Humbolt Penguin, the only living member of the group found in Peru today.

Giant penguins, almost as tall as a human, once waddled in tropical Peru. Palaeontologists unearthed the fossil remains of two new species of penguin in southern Peru in 2005. They are the oldest complete penguin fossils ever discovered in South America.

At over one and half metres tall (57"), 36-million-year-old Icadyptes salasi is also the most complete large penguin fossil ever found. The species had a beak almost 18 cm long, which the researchers believe it used to spear fish. The second new species Perudyptes devriesi, stood around 60 cm tall, comparable in size to a modern King Penguin, and lived 42 million years ago during the middle Eocene period.

Penguin populations expanded northwards from Antarctica and New Zealand after the global climate cooled at the end of the Eocene period 33 million years ago. “We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species,” said Julie Clarke, “even the small penguins in equatorial regions today”. However, the newly discovered penguins lived during the Eocene era, a period when the Earth's climate was at its warmest in the last 65 million years. “By indicating that penguins reached nearly the extremes of their present day range during a much warmer Earth, we show that major global cooling was not necessary for at least early penguins to invade equatorial regions,” she said.

Finding giant penguins in Peru also contradicts a theory that penguins have larger body sizes in the increasingly cool environments closer to the South Pole. “Our findings indicate that higher latitude was not correlated with larger body size in early penguins,” said Clarke. “Indeed, the evidence supports nearly as great a diversity in penguin body sizes and species diversity near the poles, as in low latitude Peru 42 million years ago.”

"[The new species] probably reached twice the body mass of the largest living penguin, the Emperor penguin, so would have weighed around 55 to 60 kg, and maybe stood as high as a person's shoulder,” commented Ewan Fordyce, a palaeobiologist from the University of Otago in New Zealand. “These new records allow Clarke's team to produce a new evolutionary history, of penguins,” said Fordyce, which he describes as “a fertile field for research”.

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