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Little penguins that once lived in New Zealand were ridiculously cute

In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have identified a new extinct species of small penguins that lived in New Zealand three million years ago. These creatures, described as “ridiculously cute,” are ancestors of little penguins that continue to thrive today along the coasts of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.

After careful examination of two fossilized skulls – one belonging to an adult, the other to a juvenile – the researchers named the new species Wilson’s little penguin. The study was published last month in the Journal of Paleontology.

According to Bob Yirka of, the newly discovered species represents the oldest-known extinct little penguin. Given that the researchers have only the skulls of the extinct animals at their disposal – not their entire skeletons – certain details about the Wilson’s little penguins remain uncertain. 

Evolution of little penguins 

The researchers speculate that the size of these birds may have paralleled that of contemporary little penguins, standing approximately 13.5 inches tall and weighing around two pounds.

Notably, the experts found that the extinct penguins had somewhat narrower skulls compared to their modern counterparts.

The discovery of this ancient species broadens our understanding of the lineage and evolution of little penguins. The data suggest that we can trace back the origins of this avian group to New Zealand, or Aotearoa.

The relatively static nature of this penguin lineage, which has remained virtually unchanged despite significant environmental shifts over millions of years, is particularly intriguing.

Paleontologist Daniel Ksepka, a co-author of the study, discussed this surprising constancy in a recent blog post.

Study co-author Daniel Thomas, a zoologist at New Zealand’s Massey University, emphasized the importance of this research in understanding the biodiversity and evolution of Aotearoa.

“This is important when thinking about the origins of these penguins, the evolution of the seabird diversity of Aotearoa, and the dynamic environment in which they live,” he stated. 

Thomas drew attention to the changing climate throughout the penguins’ long history, emphasizing that “this lineage has been robust to those changes.”

Climate concerns

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes today’s little penguins as a species of “least concern,” estimating that around 470,000 of these birds are still in existence. 

However, there are indications that climate change may be beginning to impact these hardy creatures. Instances of mass mortality events, such as the discovery of hundreds of starved or hypothermic little penguins on northern New Zealand coasts last summer, hint at a shifting balance.

Scientists link these fatalities to rising ocean surface temperatures, which drive fish – the penguins’ primary food source – into deeper, cooler waters. Little penguins, despite being competent swimmers, are limited by their diving depth of 100 feet. This unfortunate limitation leaves them at risk of starvation.

Concerned about the impact of escalating global warming, researchers are studying past climate change patterns to predict the potential consequences for Zealandia’s flora and fauna. The skulls of Wilson’s little penguins are set to play a vital role in this investigation. 

Biodiversity forecast 

A team led by Alan Tennyson, the vertebrate curator at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and a study co-author, will examine these fossils to gather data on the species that existed in warmer climates in the region’s distant past.

This analysis forms the foundation for what Thomas describes to NZ Herald’s Jamie Morton as a “biodiversity forecast.” The researchers plan to use this ancient data to project potential future changes to the ecosystem as temperatures continue to rise.

“With millions of years of environmental change now being compressed into just a few human lifetimes, rising temperatures are enabling tropical animals to expand their ranges, leading to potentially irrevocable changes in wildlife communities in Aotearoa and other higher latitude locations,” Thomas told the NZ Herald.

The same research team recently made another significant discovery: they unearthed evidence of the largest-known penguin species on Earth. These colossal birds, weighing in at 340 pounds, roamed New Zealand approximately 50 million years ago.

More about little penguins

Little penguins, also known as blue penguins or fairy penguins, are native to the coastlines of southern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. In New Zealand, they are also known by the Maori name kororā. They are particularly well-known residents of Phillip Island in Victoria, Australia, where a popular tourist attraction, the Penguin Parade, allows visitors to observe their nightly return to shore from the sea.

Little penguins are monogamous and usually mate for life. They build their nests in burrows, under shrubs, or in crevices on the coastal mainland and islands. In these nests, they typically raise one to two chicks at a time, feeding them a diet of small fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans.

As nocturnal creatures, little penguins spend their days at sea hunting for food, and they come ashore after sunset. Despite their small size, they are surprisingly good swimmers and can dive up to about 100 feet deep when foraging for food.

While the discovery of the Wilson’s little penguin has provided scientists with an invaluable glimpse into the evolutionary history of these charming birds, it also underscores the need for ongoing research and conservation efforts to ensure their survival in a rapidly changing world.


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