School Kids Discover New Penguin Species in New Zealand

It was no typical fossil-hunting outing.

The Kawhia giant penguin Kairuku waewaeroa
The Kawhia giant penguin Kairuku waewaeroa.

Simone Giovanardi

On an ordinary fossil-hunting outing, the members of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club in New Zealand might expect to find a few interesting shells. But on a 2006 trip to Kawhia Harbour in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island, the students discovered the bones of a fossilized giant penguin.

“We were expecting to find common fossils such as shells or ammonites, but were hugely surprised to find a huge bird skeleton just lying there on the foreshore in plain sight,” Mike Safey, president of the club, tells Treehugger.

“Our club's fossil expert Chris Templer realised immediately that we had discovered something hugely important. We made the decision to come back and rescue this fossil from the foreshore, otherwise it would have been completely destroyed by weather and wave action.”

Researchers from Massey University in New Zealand and Bruce Museum in Connecticut visited Waikato Museum to analyze the fossil that the students had uncovered. They used 3D scanning to compare the fossils to digitalized bones from all over the world. They also used 3D scanning to create a replica of the fossil for the young naturalists to keep.

Their find was recognized as a new species and was just described in a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Large and Long-Legged

The penguin fossil is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old and dates from a time when much of Waikato was underwater, according to Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology from Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences and an author of the paper.

It is similar to Kairuku giant penguins from the Otago region of New Zealand, but it has significantly longer legs, Thomas says. Researchers named it Kairuku waewaeroa which is Māori for “long legs.”

“At around 1.4 meters [4.6 feet] tall this penguin was a giant compared to living emperor penguins, which themselves stand around 1 meter tall,” Thomas tells Treehugger.

“We know that body size can be an important factor when thinking about ecology. How and why did penguins become giant, and why aren't there any giants left? Well-preserved fossils like Kairuku waewaeroa can help us address these questions.”

The long legs on the penguin not only would have made it taller than other species, but it may have had an impact on how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive, Thomas says.

The Importance of Discoveries

Researchers kept the students updated on their progress as they worked on identifying the fossil. Thomas and lead author Simone Giovanardi presented their preliminary findings to the group in 2019.

“I am not surprised that they made this discovery, as here we have a keen-eyed group actively exploring in an area where fossils are known to come from,” Thomas says. “I am impressed though, as I have heard the story of the fossil recovery, and seen the images, and the group put in a lot of mahi (work) to collect it.”

The discovery is important for researchers, Thomas says, but it was also rewarding for the students who found it and encourages other young people to go out in nature and make their own discoveries.

“Each fossil penguin discovered in Aotearoa [New Zealand] reminds us that ancient Zealandia had an incredible diversity of bird life, and emphasizes how important Aotearoa is for bird diversity today,” Thomas says.

“Finding fossils near where we live reminds us that we share our environment with birds and other animals who are the descendants of lineages that reach back into deep time. We should act as kaitiaki (guardians) for these descendants, if we want to see these lineages continue into the future.”

A Day Well-Spent

The students, who were teenagers at the time of the discovery, were fascinated by what they found, Safey says. One of the kids from the fossil trip is now a scientist and completed her Ph.D. in botany. Another works in conservation.

"Finding any fossil is pretty exciting when you think about how much time has passed while this animal remained hidden away, encased in rock,” said Taly Matthews, a long-time member of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, who now works for the Department of Conservation in Taranaki.

“Finding a giant penguin fossil though is on another level. As more giant penguin fossils are discovered we get to fill in more gaps in the story. It’s very exciting."

The students say they will remember the discovery for the rest of their lives.

"It's sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it's a new species, even!” said Steffan Safey, who was on hand for both the discovery and rescue missions.

“The existence of giant penguins in New Zealand is scarcely known, so it's really great to know that the community is continuing to study and learn more about them. Clearly the day spent cutting it out of the sandstone was well spent!"

View Article Sources
  1. Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club

  2. "Giant Waikato Penguin: School Kids Discover New Species." Taylor & Francis, 2021.

  3. Giovanardi, Simone, et al. "A Giant Oligocene Fossil Penguin from the North Island of New Zealand." Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2021, doi:10.1080/02724634.2021.1953047

  4. Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology from Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences and an author of the paper