In 2006, a group of schoolchildren on a fossil-hunting field trip in New Zealand unearthed the bones of a giant penguin. Now, 15 years later, that flightless bird is getting a name, Kairuku waewaeroa.
Researchers described the novel species of giant penguin in a new paper, published Thursday in the Journal of Vertebrate Evolution.
After the fossil penguin’s discovery in Waikato, a region on New Zealand’s North Island, the bones were transported to the Waikato Museum, where they were eventually scanned and digitally.
The 3D scans allowed scientists to compare the bones to those of other giant penguins.
“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,'” co-author Daniel Thomas said in a press release.
“These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around [4.6 feet] tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive,” said Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology at Massey University in New Zealand.
In addition to identifying the species’ proper place within the Kairuku family tree, researchers were able to estimate its age.
Kairuku waewaeroa waddled the shores of Waikato between 27.3 and 34.6 million years, when much of the region was underwater.
“Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons. 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,” Thomas said.
“The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians],” he said.
Steffan Safey was one of the kids with the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club who aided the initial discovery. He was also there to witness the rescue mission, when paleontologists went back to carefully excavate the giant penguin’s bones.
“It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today,” Safey said.
“And it’s a new species, even! The existence of giant penguins in New Zealand is scarcely known, so it’s really great to know that the community is continuing to study and learn more about them. Clearly the day spent cutting it out of the sandstone was well spent!” Safely said.
Giant penguin lineages date back to the time of the dinosaurs, but there is still much scientists don’t know about their evolutionary history.
Researchers hope additional discoveries in Waikato and elsewhere — perhaps with the ongoing support of fossil-hunting grade-schoolers — will continue to shed light on the diversity of these extinct birds.