Discovery of giant penguin suggests New Zealand and Antarctica used to be very different

An enormous penguin standing taller than the Batman villain of the same name has been identified from fossils in New Zealand.

Remains of the flightless bird were found in the town of Waipara by researchers from Canterbury Museum, who have determined that it roamed the region during the Paleocene Epoch between 66 and 56 million years ago.

It was of the crossvallia waiparensis species – one of the oldest and largest penguins known to have existed.

It is greater in size than the 1.2m emperor penguin.

At a whopping 1.6m, the crossvallia waiparensis is taller than the villainous gangster Penguin in Batman Returns, who was played by the 1.47m high Danny DeVito.

And it would have been tough work trying to p-p-p-pick it up, as scientists say it weighed between 70kg and 80kg.

It also sported huge feet that suggest they swam more than modern penguins.

The bones were found by amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love at the Waipara Greensand fossil site in North Canterbury last year, and they were prepared for study by local fossil expert Al Mannering.

They were then analysed by Canterbury Museum curators Dr Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri, who teamed up with Dr Gerald Mayr of Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, and they concluded that the bones belonged to a previously unknown penguin species.

Its closest known relative is a another extinct type of penguin, the crossvallia unienwillia, which was identified from a fossilised partial skeleton found in the Cross Valley in Antarctica in 2000.

Dr Scofield said the discoveries showed how closely connected New Zealand was to the icy continent.

“When the crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today,” he said.

“Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates.”

Crossvalia waiparensis is the fifth ancient penguin species to have been found at the Waipara Greensand site, making it arguably the most significant location in the world for such discoveries.

Dr Mayr said: “The fossils discovered there have made our understanding of penguin evolution a whole lot clearer.

“There’s more to come, too – more fossils which we think represent new species are still awaiting description.”

The findings were published in the Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal Of Palaeontology, just a week after another team of scientists in New Zealand revealed that they had discovered the fossilised remains of what is believed to be the largest parrot that ever lived.

Standing up to one metre tall and weighing around 7kg, it is thought the giant bird – named Heracles Inexpectatus after the mythical Greek demi-god – could well have dined on its smaller avian relations.

The fossils of several giant species, including crossvalia waiparensis, will be displayed in a new exhibition about prehistoric New Zealand at Canterbury Museum later this year.