A chance find in North Canterbury last year has today led to a remarkable discovery: that a giant penguin almost as tall as humans once roamed New Zealand.
Crossvallia waiparensis lived around 66 and 56 million years ago.
It could have grown as tall as 1.6m and weighed up to 80kg.
Its existence was previously unknown and adds to New Zealand’s list of giant but extinct prehistoric mammals.
That list includes the world’s largest parrot (which was discovered in Central Otago earlier this month), along with a giant eagle, a giant burrowing bat, the moa and other giant penguins.
Last year, amateur paleontologist Leigh Love stumbled upon some remains at the Greensand fossil site in Waipara, North Canterbury.
Little did he know at the time what they belonged to.
A team comprising of Canterbury Museum curators Dr Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri, and Dr Gerald Mayr of Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, analysed the bones and concluded they belonged to a previously unknown penguin species.
The latest discovery is the fifth ancient penguin species uncovered at the Greensand site.
In a paper published this week, they said its closest known relative is a fellow Paleocene species Crossvallia unienwillia, which was identified from a fossilised partial skeleton found in the Cross Valley in Antarctica in 2000.
Dr Scofield said finding closely related birds in New Zealand and Antarctica illustrates our close connection to the icy continent.
“When the Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today – Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates,” he said.
The fossils of several giant penguins, including the latest discovery, will feature in a new exhibition on prehistoric New Zealand at Canterbury Museum later this year.