Waipara Yields World's Most Complete Bird Fossil from Paleocene

Saturday 17 February 2018

Canterbury Museum can now claim to house not only the world’s oldest penguin fossil but also the world’s most complete specimen of any bird – also a penguin – that lived during the 10 million years following the extinction of the dinosaurs (the Paleocene Epoch).

The story of the newly-described Rosie’s Penguin is published today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by Dr Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Dr Paul Scofield Senior Curator Natural History Canterbury Museum, Dr Vanesa De Pietri Research Curator Natural History Canterbury Museum and fossil collectors Leigh Love and Al Mannering.

Natural History Curators Dr Vanesa De Pietri and Dr Paul Scofield talk about Rosie's Penguin

Rosie’s Penguin consists of an almost complete skeleton, missing only its feet and a few other remains. The specimen was recovered from greensand rocks near Waipara by Leigh Love and Al Mannering in May 2015.

Dr Scofield says that this penguin lived a million or so years after the 62-million-year-old Mannering’s Penguin (Waimanu manneringi), the world’s oldest penguin fossil. “It only just misses out on also holding the record for being the world’s oldest penguin.”

“When Rosie’s Penguin was found the consensus among the research team was that it represented a more complete specimen of Mannering’s Penguin, which it more or less matched in size and resembled in some skeletal features. Following CT-scanning and close inspection of the specimen over the past year, however, we discovered that this specimen was actually quite different from Mannering’s Penguin, and represents a new genus and species.”

Rosies Penguin in storage at Canterbury Museum

Rosie's penguin in storage at Canterbury Museum

Rosie's penguin is named after the late wife of the land owner of the farm on which the Waipara Greensand is exposed.

The diversity of penguins recovered from the Waipara region is remarkable and also includes the 1.5 metre tall, recently-discovered Waipara giant penguin that is yet to be named.

With the exception of one specimen of Waipara Penguin, all of these early penguin fossils are housed at Canterbury Museum.

Dr De Pietri adds, “Following the impact of a large asteroid 66 million years ago, birds were able to conquer a vast array of habitats left vacant by the demise of dinosaurs and other land and aquatic vertebrates. Through the fossil record, we know that New Zealand played a significant role in the early evolution of modern birds, especially amongst penguins, during the ten million years that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs. Worldwide, the fossil record of birds this age is poor, which makes Canterbury Museum’s collection of penguins from the Paleocene Epoch (66 to 56 million years ago) so significant.”

3D model of Rosie's penguin skull

To cite this paper: Mayr G, De Pietri VL, Love L, Mannering AA, & Scofield RP. 2018. A well-preserved new mid-paleocene penguin (Aves, Sphenisciformes) from the Waipara Greensand in New Zealand. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2017.1398169

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