Pick up a penguin: remains of giant red species found

Scientists believe discovery could explain how the smaller, modern-day creature evolved

Scientists have discovered the fossilised remains of an enormous red-feathered penguin that cast a long and waddling shadow across the shores of Peru 36m years ago.

The fossils of the beast, which were discovered by Peruvian student Ali Altamirano in the Paracas National Reserve on the country's southern coast, could help explain how its modern descendants evolved.

The new species – known as Inkayacu paracasensis, from the Quechua for water king – was nearly one-and-a-half metres tall, making it twice the size of its largest living relative, the Emperor penguin.

Its plumage was as distinctive as its stature. Feathers still attached to the bird's wing revealed that it would have been reddish-brown and grey in contrast with the black-and-white of living penguins.

After finding a patch of scaly, soft tissue preserved on one of the penguin's exposed flippers, the team nicknamed it Pedro after the hero of a Colombian telenovela.

Pedro's remains show that while the flipper and feather shapes that makes penguins such excellent swimmers evolved early on, the colour patterning of modern penguins is likely to be a far more recent development.

Like living penguins, and unlike all other birds, the creature's feathers were radically modified in shape, densely packed and stacked on top of each other to form stiff, narrow flippers.

Researchers established Pedro's plumage colours by comparing its melanosomes – the tiny, pigment-carrying structures within cells that give birds' feathers their hues – with those of living penguins.

In a paper published today in the online edition of the journal Science, they report that the fossil's melanosomes were much smaller than those of its modern descendants.

The melanosomes found in today's penguins give their feathers great resistance to wear and fracturing, leading the researchers to speculate that the change in their feathers may been produced in response to the birds' aquatic lifestyle.

The change in colouration, they argue, could also be explained by the arrival of penguin predators such as seals.

"Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colours and flipper shapes of ancient penguins," said Julia Clarke, a palaeontologist at the University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences and the lead author of the paper. "We had questions and this was our first chance to start answering them."

Clarke described the Paracas site as an extraordinary place that could still yield "new discoveries that can change our view of not only penguin evolution, but of other marine vertebrates".

One of her co-authors, Dr Dan Ksepka, research assistant professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University, agreed that picking up Pedro's remains could indeed help solve a penguin mystery.

"The fossil record shows us that Inkayacu and other giant penguins were very successful … [ranging] all over the southern hemisphere," he said. "But for some reason, they didn't continue to thrive into the present and all of the giant penguins are now extinct. By looking at the way these fossilised feathers differ from those of living penguins, we may be able to learn more about why species like Inkayacu became extinct, while the smaller modern species continue to survive today."

Another of the paper's co-authors was more succinct. "Insights into the colour of extinct organisms can reveal clues to their ecology and behaviour," said Jakob Vinther of Yale University. "But most of all, I think it is simply just cool to get a look at the colour of a remarkable extinct organism, such as a giant fossil penguin."

Contributor

Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

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