Scientists reconstruct long-extinct giant penguin

February 29, 2012 - 8:36 AM
New Zealand Giant Penguin

This undated graphic illustration released by University of Otago on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 shows a giant penguin called a Kairuku. It's taken 26 million years, but scientists say getting the first glimpse at what a long-extinct giant penguin looked like was worth the wait. Experts from New Zealand and the United States have reconstructed the fossil skeleton of one of the giant sea birds for the first time, revealing long wings, a slender build and a spearlike bill that have them describing it as one elegant bird. (AP Photo/University of Otago) MANDATORY CREDIT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — It was a slender bird, with long wings and a spear-like bill to catch swift ocean prey. And scientists say the first glimpse of the extinct giant penguin species was worth the 26 million-year wait.

Experts from New Zealand and the United States reconstructed a fossil skeleton of one of the giant sea birds to reveal a body shape unique from known penguin species with features that have them describing it as one elegant bird.

The bird they dubbed Kairuku — Maori for "diver who returns with food" — stood about 4 feet 2 inches (1.3 meters) tall and lived in the Oligocene period, about 26 million years ago. The research on Kairuku was published this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The first Kairuku bones were discovered 35 years ago in New Zealand by Ewan Fordyce, a professor of geology at New Zealand's University of Otago. He recently teamed with Dan Ksepka, a research assistant professor at North Carolina State University, to reconstruct a skeleton from multiple sets of fossils, using a king penguin as a model.

"It's pretty exciting," Fordyce told The Associated Press. "We've got enough from three key specimens to get a pretty reliable construction of its body size."

Fordyce said the bird's elongated bill may have been useful in catching swift prey and its large body size likely helped it swim farther and dive deeper than modern-day penguins.

The bird is about a foot (30 centimeters) taller than the largest modern penguin, the emperor. It would have weighed about 132 pounds (60 kilograms), 50 percent more than an emperor.

When Kairuku was alive, most of modern New Zealand was submerged beneath the ocean. The scientists believe the remaining isolated, rocky land masses helped keep the penguins safe from potential predators and provided them with plentiful supplies of food.

Fordyce said there are several reasons why the giant penguins might have become extinct: It could have been from climate change, the arrival of new predators, or increased competition for food from seals and other creatures.