Schoolkids in New Zealand discovered a new species of giant penguin

The new fossil is one of the most intact specimens of giant penguins we have.
An illustration of an extinct species of giant penguins. Two penguins stand upright and one huddles down on a rocky island.
The new giant penguin species could have been as tall as a fifth grader. Simone Giovanardi

Romping around Waikato, New Zealand, a group of schoolchildren made an amazing discovery while fossil hunting as part of their natural history club summer trip. Accompanied by their club’s resident fossil expert, the kids kayaked to Kawhia Harbor and found an unusual skeleton set in stone. 

The unidentified fossil was excavated from the surrounding sandstone fully in 2017 and donated to the Waikato museum. Now, paleontologists have identified the bones as a skeleton of a previously unknown species of giant prehistoric penguin. Using 3D scanning techniques, researchers created a digital model of the new penguin and compared it to other known specimens around the world. They concluded that this new penguin is between 27.3 and 34.6 million years old, from a time when Waikato was submerged under water. The penguin also stood at 4.5 feet tall (1.4 meters)—comparable to the kids who found it. The discovery was documented in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

A photo of the penguin fossil, and a drawing showing the new bone sizes compared to the bones of a smaller penguin.
A. Line drawing of specimen; B. The new fossil; C. A skeletal and size comparison of the new penguin, Kairuku waewaeroa, to an emperor penguin. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

When comparing known penguin fossils, the researchers found that their specimen bore similarities to a group of Kairuku penguins on the Te Waipounamu island (also known as the South Island) of New Zealand. But the new penguin was much leggier. They decided to name it Kairuku waewaeroa, which means “long-legged” in the Maori language.

[Related: This human-sized penguin isn’t even the largest ancient penguin we know about]

Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons,” University of Massey ornithologist and paper co-author Daniel Thomas said in a statement. “The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role. The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki,” Thomas said, using the Maori word for guardians.

The fossil record for giant penguins is a little sparse in New Zealand, with paleontologists having to rely on a limited selection of fragments to piece together a chronology. Discovering a new specimen is already a valuable find, but this one is “the most complete fossil of an ancient North Island penguin,” lead researcher Simone Giovanardi told the New Zealand publication Stuff. It suggests that “maybe there’s more to uncover in the Waikato,” he said. “This is a special discovery.”

Mike Safey, president of the club responsible for the kids’ fossil-finding field trip, told The Guardian that he hopes Kairuku waewaeroa can help researchers better understand the evolution of these great birds. “Giant penguins like Kairuku waewaeroa are much larger than any diving seabird today, and we know that body size can be an important factor when thinking about ecology,” he said. “How and why did penguins become giant, and why aren’t there any giants left? 

Steffan Safey was 13 at the time of the discovery, and remembers that time with awe and appreciation. He said in a statement, “It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it’s a new species even.”