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Children discover a new species of giant penguins

In 2006, New Zealand school children in the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club were out looking for fossils in Kawhia Harbour, a natural inlet in the Waikato region. Led by the club’s fossil expert, Chris Templer, they discovered the bones of a giant. extinct penguin. 

In a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, scientists have now confirmed that what the children found was a new species that has been named Kairuku waewaeroa. The penguin was given a Māori scientific name, rather than Latin or Greek. 

In 2017, the junior naturalists donated the penguin fossil to the Waikato museum. Recently,  American researchers visited the museum to examine the specimen and make 3-D scans. 

The scans allowed the Junior Naturalist Club to have their own replica of the fossil. The examination of the specimen confirmed that it is a new species to science. 

Dr. Daniel Thomas, a researcher at Massey University, estimated the age of the fossil from 27.3 to 34.6 million years old, a time when Waikato was under water. 

“The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs, which the researchers used to name the penguin waewaeroa – Te reo Māori for ‘long legs,'” explained Dr. Thomas. 

“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.”

“It’s been a real privilege to contribute to the story of this incredible penguin. We know how important this fossil is to so many people,”

For many of the children and adults who helped collect the penguin fossil, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Taly Matthews is a long-time member of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club who now works for the Department of Conservation in Taranaki.

“Finding any fossil is pretty exciting when you think about how much time has passed while this animal remained hidden away, encased in rock. Finding a giant penguin fossil though is on another level,” said Matthews. “As more giant penguin fossils are discovered we get to fill in more gaps in the story. It’s very exciting.”

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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