RALEIGH, N.C. – The popular image of penguins features a dapper little guy that thrives in the frozen, biting iceland depicted in the hit movie “March of the Penguins.”
But Julia Clarke knows there’s more to it. The North Carolina State University paleontologist and South American scientists have identified two new penguin species that dwelled near the equator tens of millions of years ago. One was a 5-foot tall giant – big as Paula Abdul.
“This really throws a wrench into the idea that always puts penguins on ice, like on all those greeting cards. How about a penguin sipping a piña colada at the equator?” Clarke said.
The new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, strengthens evidence that penguins did not fan out from frigid polar regions only 4 to 8 million years ago, as was believed. Clarke and collaborators date the newly discovered penguin fossils – found in desert outcroppings in coastal Peru – to 36 and 42 million years ago.
Earth was much warmer then, Clarke said, and the poles may not have hosted ice caps, as they have now for thousands of years. Fossil records show that crocodiles dwelled near Antarctica.
The remains of the larger penguin constitute the most complete example of a giant penguin fossil recovered to date. Earlier finds included only single bones, Clarke said. In Peru the paleontologists found a complete skull and many other pieces, including fragments of backbone and limbs.
The ancient animals are related to today’s 18 species of penguins, some of which are warm-weather critters that still populate the Pacific coast of South America. But there’s been some evolution, creating marked differences from the famed Emperor, King and Crested penguins that have become movie stars today. The earlier penguins had narrower beaks. And the giant animals sported a less-than-cuddly feature – fearsome beaks that resembled a spear.
Even though the ancient giants succeeded in warmer climates so long ago, that doesn’t mean today’s cold-weather species could quickly adapt to warmer temperatures, such as those predicted as a result of climate change, Clarke said. Global warming could occur too fast for needed biological adaptations.
“These new fossil species cannot be used to argue that warming wouldn’t negatively impact living penguins,” Clarke said.