Giant penguins wandered New Zealand

via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine bumping into a penguin. Aw, those little guys. The cutest birds of all. They waddle, can’t fly, hang out in big groups, they look like they’re wearing tuxedos, they scheme to escape zoos, dance and even wait tables. The Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin said: “One can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin,” and it’s difficult to disagree. Penguins are simply adorable.

But what if the penguin you bumped into was four and a half feet tall?

Scientists have reconstructed the skeleton of the prehistoric giant Kairuku penguin in New Zealand. Fossils of the Kairuku were first discovered in 1977 but it wasn’t until last year that the scientists had enough bones to reconstruct the penguin, which lived 25 million years ago.

The Kairuku (which means ‘diver who returns with food’ in Maori) lived in a New Zealand which was largely submerged underwater. They were more streamlined and had longer beaks than their modern counterparts. Its believed they lived on large fish and squid. To contrast, the largest modern penguin is the Emperor, which stands at just over three feet, and lives on small fish, shrimp and krill.

Despite being a more efficient hunter, the Kairuku had yet to evolve the sophisticated flippers that make modern penguins such good swimmers. Scientists are unsure why they became extinct, but think they might have been hunted out of existence by seals and dolphins.

Ancient penguins (via Wikimedia Commons)

Megafauna (really big animals) were common in prehistoric times. Modern-day megafauna include beasts like whales, elephants and hippos. But in the Pleistocene period- roughly around the time of the Ice Age- the world was home to things like the smilodon, or sabre-toothed tiger, which weighed half a tonne. Other animals included the dire wolf (a five-foot long wolf) and-gulp!- the wonambi, a 20-foot snake. Even the seas were home to seven-foot-long sabretooth salmon.

And indeed, this is isn’t the first time the idea of a giant penguin has been mooted. A hoax in Florida in the 1940s made people believe a 15-foot giant penguin was wandering the neighbourhood. It wasn’t.

Compared with these monsters, the Kairuku sounds quite cute. The fact that they were possibly wiped out by the equally  adorable dolphin makes them even more pathetic. Even in the time of monsters and ice, penguins were nature’s way of making the world smile.

This article appeared on on February 29 2012. 

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