With a maximum weight of up to 100 pounds, the emperor penguin is amongst the largest and heaviest birds alive today. It’s worth noting that 100 pounds is a pretty significant outlier and that most emperor penguins weigh in at a little over half of this weight. Built for swimming, rather than flying, the emperor penguin is able to use its extra weight in order to survive the harsh cold of the Antarctic winter. Emperor penguins are both the largest and the heaviest living penguins, however a recent discovery suggests that a prehistoric penguin might’ve once dwarfed them in size.
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The new discovery, which has been named for the Maori words for “bird” and “monster,” is being called Kumimanu fordycei. Kumimanu fordycei was discovered in New Zealand when large boulder, tumbled by the relentless ocean waves, were cracked open on a beach in Otago. Inside, fragments of fossils from Kumimanu and another brand new prehistoric penguin were found. The other penguin, dubbed Petradyptes stonehousei, looks to be larger than any living penguin, but still comparable in size to modern emperor penguins.
Kumimanu fordycei is expected to be the largest penguin ever to have lived. The fossils found include what appears to be a humerus bone. Using size and weight comparisons based upon the humerus bones of other fossil birds and living penguins, it is estimated that Kumimanu fordycei may have weighed anywhere from 300 to 350 pounds. This is more than triple the maximum weight of the largest empire penguins.
Kumimanu fordycei lived during the Paleocene Epoch and the current fossil findings are thought to date back to about 57 million years ago. This places Kumimanu fordycei at a very early spot within the family tree of the penguin.
It is no surprise that such an important piece of avian paleontology was discovered in New Zealand. Often referred to as the “land of birds,” New Zealand is a paradise for ground-dwelling birds thanks to its lack of terrestrial predators. Prior to the introduction of non-native predators by settlers, flightless birds like Kiwis, Kakapos, and several others, were able to take full advantage of this atypical ecological niche. This niche has shrunk in recent years, placing pressure on New Zealand’s birds and sending many into decline. The discovery of Kumimanu fordycei is both an extremely significant addition to the fossil record and our understanding of the prehistoric world, as well as a great reminder of New Zealand’s ancient relationship with the avian branch of the animal kingdom. This is a relationship that must be preserved.