Scientists have pieced together the skeleton of a giant penguin that lived in New Zealand 25 million years ago.
At just over four feet tall, the Kairuku penguin was taller than the largest Emperor Penguins and likely ate larger prey than today's penguins, including large fish and squid, says Dan Ksepka, part of the North Carolina State University team that reconstructed the animal.
"They're bigger than anything that's alive today, they'd be head-and-shoulders above an emperor penguin," Ksepka says.
Kairuku bones were first discovered in New Zealand in 1977, and other samples have surfaced since, but scientists didn't have enough fossils to recreate the skeleton until last year, Ksepka says.
"Each discovery gave us a little more information, and I think it reached critical mass, where we had enough of the specimen to recreate the skeleton," he says.
The Kairuku likely only survived a couple million years. At the time, much of New Zealand was underwater, leaving some of the highest points exposed for the penguins to live on, Ksepka says. Their elongated flippers and beak, slender body and powerful legs likely made the Kairuku good hunters.
"We've been calling it svelte—it's kind of thin for a penguin, most today are rather blubbery. Most of the animal is quite elegantly designed, I think it would have been a beautiful animal to see alive," he says. "The beak is very long, straight, and narrow, which means it's not suited to getting shrimp or krill. They were probably hunting larger things like fish and squid."
Ksepka and his team are trying to solve more mysteries surrounding the Kairuku and other prehistoric penguin species native to New Zealand. The fossilized bones of a baby Kairuku penguin could shed light on how parents raised their young.
"There's always plenty more to learn," Ksepka says.