Fifty million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch, the Earth was an unrecognizable wilderness of verdant forests and expansive valleys where tapirs, rhinoceroses, and horses roamed. Each new fossil discovery provides a greater understanding of what that world looked like. But one of the most recent finds has the internet buzzing with talk of penguins the size of a linebacker!
Known as Kumimanu fordycei, fossil evidence of this newfound species has emerged from beach boulders in North Otago on South Island, New Zealand. Here’s what we know about the ancient penguin species that rivaled today’s heaviest professional football players and largest basketball stars (think Shaquille O’Neal).
The Giants of the Southern Hemisphere
How does Kumimanu fordycei stack up against other penguins from the past and present? If we start with penguin species today, the largest is the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), coming in at approximately 100 pounds. As for ancient species, the next closest penguin was the Palaeeudyptes klekowskii, which lived roughly 37 million years ago in Antarctica. This big beauty tipped the scales at a whopping 256 pounds and measured 6.6 feet tall!
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
As for Kumimanu fordycei, researchers are hesitant to give a height for the animal because they don’t have a complete skeleton. But the fossils they recovered allowed them to guesstimate the animal’s weight based on bone density and size. Daniel Field of Cambridge University explains, “Kumimanu fordycei would have been an utterly astonishing sight on the beaches of New Zealand 57 million years ago, and the combination of its sheer size and the incomplete nature of its fossil remains makes it one of the most intriguing birds ever found.”
Ancient Giants Everywhere
The fossil record continues to point to gigantic versions of modern-day animals that once stomped around the globe. Along with Super Bowl player-sized penguins, we’re talking everything from scorpions the size of large dogs to massive woolly mammoths. These finds beg at least two questions: 1) Why was Earth once so conducive to giants? 2) Did these massive animals behave like their modern-day counterparts?
The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Scientists hypothesize that the planet’s atmosphere once contained a much greater oxygen content, hence the exaggerated scale of organisms. As for the second question, researchers believe giant penguins knew how to throw their weight around. This would have included targeting and capturing larger prey and better conserving their body temperatures during long swims in cold water. Some scientists theorize these ancient penguins would have also been equipped to dive to extreme depths, providing predatory access to ecosystems their modern counterparts wouldn’t imagine visiting today.
Of course, there’s one thing ancient penguins probably weren’t better at, and that’s predicting the Super Bowl. According to Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, their MVPs (most valuable penguins) predicted the Kansas City Chiefs as winners of the 2023 Super Bowl days before the teams matched up on the field. So, how did they do this? Through one of the most watchable events out there, the Penguin Bowl. Check out the adorable video here.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com