Penguins are truly adorable birds. With their distinct waddle on land and elegant glide underwater, they are some of the world's most distinct animals. Birds that have evolved to 'fly' not above but through the sea. No wonder we find them so cute and thrilling!
Today, most penguin species come about knee-to-waist-high to an adult human. The largest, the emperor penguin, comes up to around the elbow.
But deep in the past, there were bigger penguin species. A recent fossil discovery in New Zealand proved this by unearthing not one, but two new species of penguin from around 55 to 59 million years ago.
Petradyptes stonehousei was a hefty bird that would've been just able to look over the head of today's emperor penguin. But the second species, Kumimanu fordycei, likely weighed over 150 kg (340 pounds) and at 1.8 m (5 feet 11 inches) tall, would've towered over the emperor. In fact, it would've been able to look an adult human straight in the eye.
Wow! Hi there!
Of course, the paleontologists behind the research don't know this for certain. As with most fossil discoveries, estimates are made based on the discovery of a few bones, not a complete skeleton. In the illustration, above you can see a comparison of three penguin species, K. fordycei, P. stonehousei, and the modern emperor. In white are the bones that were found as fossils, while the grey parts of the skeleton are what they had to estimate based on how other penguin species look.
As you can see, they had to guess about quite a bit, especially for the K. fordycei. But that is how paleontology works. We only get to see so much of the past—the rest we need to fill in for ourselves. Here's how tall scientists think one of the penguins would have looked next to a human.
This is our best guess at height for Kumimanu fordycei (we have a good mass regression, but height is tricky without any leg bones so we did not estimate it in the paper). These cutouts will be available for selfies when we open the @thebrucemuseum Penguins exhibit this spring! pic.twitter.com/ajRiYFCHGH
— Daniel Ksepka (@KsepkaLab) February 8, 2023
This doesn't necessary make it the tallest penguin ever. Another fossil species, Palaeeudyptes klekowskii, found on Seymour Island near Antarctica was around 2 m (6 feet 6 inches) tall. But it is estimated to have weighed less than the K fordycei, which appears to have been the heaviest-ever penguin.
"We measured hundreds of penguin bones from modern species to try to estimate the body mass [of the ancient penguins]," researcher Daniel Ksepka told CBC radio, "and we arrived at a total of about 340 pounds, which is just kind of mind-blowing. I mean, imagine a penguin the size of a gorilla!"
We definitely are, Daniel!
At that size, getting around on the land would've been a challenge. But in water, its aerodynamic body glided through the waves. Think about that the next time you see a cute little penguin waddling around!