A penguin discovered by a group of Crianças luckily, in 2006, it ranks among the variety of species fossilized found in New Zealand. According to a study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology this week, the animal corresponds to a new species.

“It's kind of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today. And it's even a new species!” said Steffan Safey, who was one of the kids on the Hamilton Junior Nature Club camping trip at the time. "Clearly, the day spent pulling it out of the sandstone was well spent."

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Fossils have been found in rock over 30 million years old. Image: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology – Reproduction

According to ScienceAlert, within a now solidified layer of what was once pure mud, the students discovered the fossilized remains of the penguin's trunk, leg and arm bones.

Paleontologist Simone Giovanardi of Massey University and her team examined and formally described the discovery, located in a rock about 30 million years ago in Kawhia Harbor on New Zealand's North Island.

“The animal is similar to the giant Kairuku penguins first described in Otago, but it has much longer legs, which the researchers used to call the penguin Waewaeroa – a Māori word for 'long legs,'” explained zoologist Daniel Thomas of Massey University .

"These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while walking on land, perhaps about four feet tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or dive deep."

An analysis of living and extinct members of penguin family trees suggests that these species reached their large proportions independently of each other. Natural selection seems to have an interesting habit of turning birds into giants when they are isolated in a predator-free habitat.

In a sense, when Zealand split from Gondwana 80 million years ago, it was (or soon became) free from predatory mammals, making it an ideal melting pot for such evolutionary experiments.

Region has housed at least ten ancient penguin species 

At least 10 known ancient giant penguins have been found there, including the 60-million-year-old, 1,60-meter tall Crossvallia waiparensis, discovered in 2019.

Some researchers suspect that, having survived the dinosaur extinction Non-aviary 66 million years ago, penguins were able to take advantage of the lack of giant marine predators.

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Left with the abundant resources needed to support larger bodies, they were able to expand into new ecological niches – a phenomenon called mesopredator release.

This almost coincided with their move to become flightless divers – the ability to fly would also have limited their size. 

And with no predatory land mammals around, giant penguins had a safer place to breed.

Since other marine predators like sharks, grew during the Eocene and Oligocene, any advantage provided by swimming faster would have become vital again for these birds.

“Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for many reasons,” explained Thomas. “The fossil penguin reminds us that we share the country with amazing animal bloodlines that span time, and that sharing gives us an important guardianship role”

According to the zoologist, the way in which the penguin fossil was discovered, by children exploring nature, underscores the importance of encouraging future generations to become guardians – or, kaitiaki, in Māori.

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