The Penguins of the Past Will Haunt Your Dreams

The news: Penguins are pretty adorable. But newly unearthed fossils have shown that the cuddly creatures from Happy Feet, cute animal videos and catching fish at the zoo had an Antarctic ancestor that stood over five feet tall and weighed a terrifying 250 pounds.

Palaeeudyptes klekowskii was basically the Hulk Hogan of penguins, measuring 6.63 feet from the tip of its toes to the end of its beak. Capable of swimming underwater for up to 40 minutes or more, it would have been a fearsome aquatic predator during its heyday 37-40 million years ago. Its closest living relative in size is the emperor penguin, which stands a comparatively paltry 1.1 meters and weighs about 110 pounds.

If you got in a fight with the so-called "mega penguin," it would probably win. Now remember that penguins live in giant flocks and you've got a recipe for a bad monster movie.


Image Credit: Daily Mail

The science: Biologists have known about the mega penguin for years, but have struggled to discover enough fossil evidence to paint a better picture of its physiology and lifestyle. The latest find, reported by Dr. Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche of Argentina's La Plata Museum in Geobios, was found on Seymour Island off the coast of Antarctica.

Earlier in 2014, Hospitaleche dug up about a dozen mostly smaller bones from the creature's wings and feet. The new find consists of two much larger ones: a humerus from a wing and a tarsometatarsus, a bone found only in birds and dinosaurs that forms part of the lower leg and ankle. You can see the fossils below (A-E is the humerus, while F-K is the tarsometatarsus):


Image Credit: Daily Mail

Seymour Island is part of a larger chain off the Antarctic Peninsula, where frozen Antarctica comes closest to touching South America. Forty million years ago, the region had a climate much like cool but mild Tierra del Fuego. Dr. Hospitaleche told the New Scientist that the species would have lived alongside 10-14 other varieties on the island, making it a sort of penguin paradise.


Though there's no recorded interactions between the mega penguin and Homo sapiens, we imagine it would have looked a little like this:


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Tom McKay

Tom is a staff writer at Mic, covering national politics, media, policing and the war on drugs. He is based in New York and can be reached at tmckay@mic.com.

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