Giant penguin fossil takes up residence at Waikato Museum

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The skeleton of an ancient Kawhia giant penguin was discovered by a group of young explorers from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club.
The skeleton of an ancient Kawhia giant penguin was discovered by a group of young explorers from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club.

An ancient fossil of a giant penguin - discovered near Kawhia in 2006 and estimated to be 28 million years old - has become an official part of Waikato Museum's science collection.

The find was made by a group of young explorers with the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club (JUNATs) at Te Waitere inlet, part of the Aotea Harbour.

"They pretty much stumbled across it," said Waikato Museum curator Salina Ghazally.

"They often go out to that area for summer camp with the club members, and they are usually looking for things like fossilised molluscs or crabs - something that you'd typically find in that area - and stumbled upon some bones protruding during the low tide when they were scouring the foreshore area."

Among the JUNATs group was an amateur archaeologist who recognised the bones as avian which led to the realisation that what they had found was an ancient giant penguin.

The skeleton was located in a layer of mudstone called the Whaingaroa Formation, which has been estimated to be between 24 and 28 million years old.

The final resting place of a giant penguin at Aotea Harbour, between Raglan and Kawhia on the West coast. PHOTO / SARAH IVEY
The final resting place of a giant penguin at Aotea Harbour, between Raglan and Kawhia on the West coast. PHOTO / SARAH IVEY

After its discovery, the fossil was handed to the Waikato Museum on loan, and has since been conserved and put on display to the public numerous times.

Those occasions included the 2015 exhibition Giant in the North which featured an interactive 3D scan of the skeleton, enabling visitors to view its every visual detail.

"The significance of this transfer of ownership is that now that it is within our science collection at the Waikato Museum, now that it is formally in our collection, the work can begin to describe the penguin with expert collaborators," said Ghazally.

"This is really the beginning of the journey to get it described formally. We cannot say whether it's a new species or anything just yet. There's a little bit more involved investigation that needs to happen."

The Kawhia penguin was one of only two giant penguin fossils to have ever been discovered in the North Island. The other was relatively nearby, at Glen Murray in the north of Waikato.

"It begins to tell us a little bit about how perhaps these giant penguins were distributed a long time ago, during a time period when New Zealand was underwater, pretty much," said Ghazally.

"It was the Oligocene, so the land mass was very different from today, and finding giant penguins in the North Island suggests the they were further in distribution than only in the South Island, because the other giant penguins found to date have been in the South Island."

She said from what she has been told by a local paleontologist, as well as the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in the United States, the Kawhia penguin is the most intact penguin fossil ever found in the world.

Dr Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology at Massey University in Auckland, will be helping to further investigate and formally describe the penguin, with much more ease now that the specimen is in the public domain.

"We can't give a timeline on when we can confirm who this giant is. It's something to keep an ear out for," said Ghazally.

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