In the upper reaches of the Waipara River, North Canterbury, fossils dating back 62 million years have been found in a layer of sedimentary rock known as the Waipara Greensand.

Paul Scofield and Leigh Love digging for fossils in Waipara

Palaeontologists Dr Paul Scofield and Leigh Love dig for fossils at one of the Waipara fossil sites.

During the Paleocene, the area was east of the mostly submerged ancient subcontinent of Zealandia. Sea creatures often became entombed beneath the seabed when they died.

Millions of years later, these rocks and their treasure trove of fossils were revealed as landmasses collided, lifting the seabed and the Waipara River cut into the overlying layers.

Dr Vanesa De Pietri ,Canterbury Museum Research Curator Natural History, discusses finding fossilised giant penguins and other seabirds at the Waipara Greensand site.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Upper Waipara River fossil site is the diversity of ancient penguin fossils recovered there. Apart from one specimen, all these penguin fossils are cared for at Canterbury Museum. The only other fossils of similar significance come from the Antarctic Peninsula south of South America.

Sixty-six million years ago an asteroid hit the Earth leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs and other land and aquatic predators. Birds were then free to conquer a vast array of habitats.

In the 10 million years that followed, Zealandia played a significant role in the early evolution of modern birds, especially penguins. Worldwide, the fossil record of birds this age is poor. This makes Canterbury Museum’s collection of penguins from the Paleocene (66 to 56 million years ago) very significant.

Mannering's Penguin

Waimanu manneringi

Mannering’s Penguin is the world’s oldest known penguin fossil, dating back about 62 million years. At 1.2 metres and 30 kgs it is taller and heavier than the living Emperor Penguin of Antarctica.

Palaeontogists described the species in 2006 from a skeleton of nine bones. The species name honours Al Mannering, who found the only know fossil of the species in 1997. Waimanu is Māori for water bird.

With its very long feet and stooped stance, Mannering’s looks the least like a penguin of all the ancient species. There is ongoing debate about whether these ancient birds should be included in the same family as modern penguins.

Slack KE, Jones CM, Ando T, Harrison GL, Fordyce RE, Arnason U, Penny D. 2006. Early Penguin Fossils, plus Mitochondrial Genomes, Calibrate Avian Evolution. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 23: 1144–1155.

Mannering's Penguin illustation
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Mannering's Penguin is the oldest known species of penguin.

Mannering's Penguin model
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A life-sized model of Mannering's Penguin.

Mannering's Penguin fossils
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Mannering's Penguin was described from this skeleton of nine fossil bones.

Canterbury Museum ZFa35

Waipara Giant Penguin

Crossvallia waiparensis

The Waipara Giant Penguin is the most recently described of the Waipara giant penguins. The newly unearthed fossils represent one of the largest penguin species ever found.

It was only after fossil preparator Al Mannering extracted the bones, which were encased in hard rock, that they were identified as from a penguin.

Crossvallia lived about 59 million years ago and stood 1.6 metres tall, about the size of an average woman and weighed between 70 and 80 kg.

The closest known relative of Crossvallia waiparensis is Crossvallia unienwillia, a slightly younger species that was discovered on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2000.

Zealandia, the landmass that would become Aotearoa New Zealand began splitting from Antarctica some 80 million years ago. During the era of the giant penguins, Antarctica was covered in forest and both regions had much warmer climates. The similarities between the two species highlight Aotearoa New Zealand’s close connection to the once not so icy continent.

Mayr G, De Pietri VL, Love L, Mannering A, Scofield RP. 2019. Leg bones of a new penguin species from the Waipara Greensand add to the diversity of very large-sized Sphenisciformes in the Paleocene of New Zealand. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology 2019: 1–8.

Crossvallia waiparensis
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Crossvallia lived about 59 million years ago and stood 1.6 metres tall and weighed between 70 and 80 kg.

Crossvallia waiparensis model
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A life-sized model of the Waipara Giant Penguin.

Crossvallia waiparensis fossils
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Crossvallia waiparensis was described from these fossil legs bones.

Canterbury Museum 2018.124.9

Waipara Penguin

Muriwaimanu tuatahi

This Waipara Penguin was described from three partial skeletons. It is thought to be between 60 and 58 million years old.

Compared to its colossal relatives alive at the same time, it was medium-sized, slightly larger than today's Yellow-eyed Penguin.

The name Muriwaimanu comes from the Māori word muri meaning after and waimanu is Māori for water bird indicating that this genus of penguin postdates Waimanu. Tuatahi means first in Māori, as this was first ancient penguin found in the upper Waipara Valley.

Slack KE, Jones CM, Ando T, Harrison GL, Fordyce RE, Arnason U, Penny D. 2006. Early Penguin Fossils, plus Mitochondrial Genomes, Calibrate Avian Evolution. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 23: 1144–1155.

Waipara Penguin illustratoin
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Slightly larger than today’s Yellow-eyed Penguin, Muriwaimanu was quite small compared to the giant penguins it lived alongside.

Waipara Penguin model
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A life-sized model of the Waipara Penguin.

Waipara Pengiun fossils
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Partial fossilised skeletons of the Waipara Penguin. 

Canterbury Museum ZFa33, ZFa 34, 2009.99.1

Rosie's Penguin

Sequiwaimanu rosieae

This remarkable fossil is the almost complete skeleton of a giant penguin, missing only its feet and a few other remains. It is the best-preserved and most complete penguin found so far from the Paleocene.

The skeleton was recovered by Leigh Love and Al Mannering in 2015. Initially palaeontologists thought they had found a more complete specimen of Mannering’s Penguin as it was about the same size and had some similar skeletal features. After CT-scanning and close inspection, they discovered it was quite different and represented a new genus and species from about 61 million years ago.

The genus name comes from the Latin sequor, which means to follow, as the new species was recovered from rock layers above where Mannering’s Penguin was found. The species name honours Rosemary (Rosie) Ann Goord, the late wife of Richard Goord, owner of Claremont Estate, the farm on which the Waipara Greensand is exposed.

Mayr G, De Pietri VL, Love L, Mannering AA, Scofield RP. 2017. A well-preserved new mid-paleocene penguin (Aves, Sphenisciformes) from the Waipara Greensand in New Zealand. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 37: e1398169.

Rosie's Penguin illustration
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Rosie’s Penguin was about 1.3 metres tall and would have weighed about 55 kgs.

Rosie's Penguin model
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A life-sized model of Rosie's Penguin.

Rosie's Penguin fossils
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Rosie's Penguin is the most complete fossil penguin found in Waipara. The skeleton is missing only the feet and a few other remains.

Canterbury Museum 2016.6.1

Mini Penguins

Not all ancient penguins were giants. Palaeontologists have so far found two unnamed species of mini penguins. These were the size of modern crested-penguins but had longer legs and a different stance. The scientists plan to describe them in the coming year.

Al Mannering found the first of the mini penguins in 2003 but did not realise its significance until preparing it in 2012.

The fossil was in exceptional condition. The skull is one of the most important parts of the body for palaeontologists to study, providing valuable clues about the bird's history and its relationships with other penguins.

The skull was CT-scanned at a special facility at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and a detailed description of its brain was published by PhD student James Proffitt in 2016. This study showed that although losing the ability to fly gave ancient penguins their unique swimming abilities it did not cause major changes in the parts of the brain adapted for flight.

Proffitt, JV, Clarke JA, Scofield RP. 2016. Novel insights into early neuroanatomical evolution in penguins from the oldest described penguin brain endocast. Journal of anatomy 229: 228–238.

Mini Penguins illustration
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These penguins have not yet been named, but a 2016 study of their skulls revealed how losing the power of flight changed penguin brains.

Mini penguin models
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A life-sized model of one of the mini penguin species.

Mini Penguins fossils
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Fossils from two unnamed species of small penguin.

Canterbury Museum 2013.27.1, 2018.124.7

A Gigantic Fossil Turtle

Scientists have found evidence that gigantic sea turtles lived nearly 60 million years ago near Waipara.

These bones are from the underside (the plastron) of a giant turtle more than 3 metres long that probably weighed more than 600 kg, about the weight of a medium-sized cow.

This turtle belonged to the group which includes the leatherback turtle, the largest living sea turtle (Dermochelyidae). This turtle group has seven extinct genera dating back to the Cretaceous and one surviving genus.

 

Turtle illustration
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The Waipara giant turtle was larger than any living turtle.

Turtle shell
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Fragment's of a giant turtle's shell found at the upper Waipara River fossil site.

Canterbury Museum 2010.108.6

Birds with Teeth

The bony-toothed birds (Pelagornithidae), sometimes called false-toothed pelicans, were a prehistoric family of large seabirds with no living relatives. Fossil remains have been found all over the world in rocks dating back as early as 62 million years and as recently as 3 million years ago.

Protodontopteryx iIllustration by Derek Onley

An artist’s visualisation of Protodontopteryx, the oldest known bony-toothed bird, at sea 62 million years ago. At the left are Waipara Penguins. Image: Derek Onley

Pelagornithids were among the largest flying birds ever. Even the smaller species were the size of albatrosses and the largest species had wingspans estimated at more than 5 metres.

Unlike the true teeth of dinosaurs and the early ancestors of birds, the tooth-like projections on the edge of pelagornithids’ beaks didn’t have specialised cutting edges. They were probably only useful to hold prey like squid, before swallowing it whole, rather than tearing it to bits.

Ruth's Bony-toothed Bird

Protodontopteryx ruthae

This fossil bird lived 62 million years ago and was found at the Waipara fossil site by amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love in 2018. Paleontologists named the species Protodontopteryx ruthae after Leigh’s wife, Ruth.

It is one of the oldest named bird species in the world and the oldest pelagornithid ever found. Until this skeleton was described, pelagornithids were thought to have evolved in the Northern Hemisphere as this is where the oldest specimens had been found.

The fossil is one of the most complete specimens of a bony-toothed bird and shows a number of unexpected skeletal features that have contributed to a better understanding of the evolution of these enigmatic birds.

Mayr G, De Pietri VL, Love L, Mannering A, Scofield RP 2019. Oldest, smallest and phylogenetically most basal pelagornithid, from the early Paleocene of New Zealand, sheds light on the evolutionary history of the largest flying birds. Papers in Palaeontology.

Ruth's Bony-toothed Bird illustration
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These birds belong to an extinct family called pelagornithids. The fossil found at Waipara is the oldest bony-toothed bird ever found. Until this skeleton was described, pelagornithids were thought to have evolved in the Northern Hemisphere.

Ruth's Bony-toothed Bird fossils
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The fossil remains of Ruth's Bony-toothed Bird. On the left is a 3D printed model of the bill of the gigantic Chilean Bony-toothed Bird that lived about 7 million years ago. By comparison the bill of Ruth's Bony-toothed Bird is less than one third the size.

Canterbury Museum 2018.124.8

A Southern Tropicbird

As the name suggests tropicbirds are only found today in the tropics. This fragmentary fossil is evidence that North Canterbury was once home to the world’s earliest tropicbird.

Scientists have not yet given this fossil a formal name as they are awaiting more complete specimens.

Mayr G, Scofield RP. 2016. New avian remains from the Paleocene of New Zealand: the first early Cenozoic Phaethontiformes (tropicbirds) from the Southern Hemisphere. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 36: e1031343.

Tropicbird illustration
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Today, tropicbirds live in warm regions near the equator, but 60 million years ago, their ancestors could be found much further south. Fossilised bone fragments belonging to the oldest known tropicbird species were found at Waipara.

Southern tropicbird fossils
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These fossil fragments are the remains of an ancient tropicbird species.

Canterbury Museum 2018.108.4

Tropicbird specimen
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The ancient tropicbird may have resembled this modern tropicbird, the Red-tailed Tropicbird from Polynesia.

Canterbury Museum AV25906

Australornis lovei

Australornis is a remarkable extinct seabird discovered in 2009. Australornis is Latin for southern bird. The name lovei commemorates Leigh Love, the amateur palaeontologist who found it.

Australornis is one of the world’s oldest known flying seabirds. It does not appear to belong to any of the living bird families, but to an extinct group. As a result, its discovery is of global significance in the evolution of birds. Though the fossil evidence is incomplete, Australornis contributes to the emerging view that the evolution of modern birds had already begun 62 million years ago.

Australornis is also important in understanding how animals spread geographically during this time. This suggests that seabirds evolved feeding in the deep waters of the warm seas off the coast of Zealandia.

Mayr, G, Scofield, RP. 2014. First diagnosable non-sphenisciform bird from the early Paleocene of New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. 44: 48–56.

Australornis illustration
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One of the world’s oldest known flying seabirds, this mysterious animal is unlike any living bird. It appears to belong to an extinct group of birds. It is named after Leigh Love, the palaeontologist who found it.

Australornis fossil
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The fossil remains of Australornis lovei. More remains need to be found for scientists to better understand this mysterious bird.

 Canterbury Museum 2018.108.2

How to Find a Fossil

Palaeontologist Leigh Love might be an amateur, but he's found a number of highly significant fossils at the Waipara Greensand fossil site – including several giant penguins.

In this video, he talks about some of his most exciting discoveries and how he found them.

Palaeontologist illustration
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Palaeontologists are scientists who dig up and study the fossilised remains of creatures from the ancient past. They can be found working in the laboratories at Canterbury Museum and digging at Waipara and St Bathans.

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