Researchers have discovered an ancient penguin with red eyes and yellow feathers that lived three million years ago and could be the “missing link” between modern-day penguins and their ancestors.
The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, details the findings of Eudyptes atatu, which lived in early New Zealand. E. atatu is an early ancestor of crested penguins, which are native to the country.
“The newly discovered and well-preserved fossil E. atatu reveals that crested penguins (Eudyptes) had been recruited into the Zealandian avifauna by the late Pliocene,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The dawn crested penguin Eudyptes atatu in New Zealand, 3 million years ago. (Credit: SWNS)
“The crown Eudyptes that contribute to the New Zealand biodiversity hotspot today are potentially the descendants of a lineage that has lived in Zealandia for several million years,” the researchers added. “The presence of crested penguins (Eudyptes) and yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes) in the New Zealand region since the late Neogene is here supported by historical biogeographic analyses, implying ghost lineages for Eudyptes and Megadyptes extending back at least 3 million years.”
As such, it’s believed that E. atatu is the “sister species to all extant and recently extinct members of the crested penguin genus Eudyptes,” a species of penguin that all have red eyes and has eight types.
At just over 2 feet tall, E. atatu was slightly half the size of an Emperor penguin. The researchers were able to identify it based on several “well-preserved” fossils, including a skull, break, rib, wing and leg bones.
It’s believed the shift in body sizes of baleen whales is also linked to the differing size of E. atatu and their modern-day relatives, perhaps due to the increase in waters filled with nutrients and an explosion in the food web.
Right humerus from the newly described dawn crested penguin Eudyptes atatu. (Credit: SWNS)
“Beginning in the Pliocene, intensified, wind-driven upwelling radically reformed oceanic food webs, triggering a boom in krill biomass that led to the explosive diversification of cetaceans,” the researchers, led by study lead author, Daniel Thomas, wrote. “We hypothesize that crested penguins were also affected by this food web restructuring, though with much more subtle manifestation in their morphology than in the case of cetaceans.”
Researchers continue to learn more about the evolution of penguins. In June, researchers found that the monster penguins that lived in New Zealand 62 million years ago had doppelgangers in Japan, the U.S. and Canada,