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The Big Klekowskii: Yes, ancient penguins were the size of basketball players

Published time: August 02, 2014 15:23
AFP Photo / Marcel Mochet / Ethan Miller

AFP Photo / Marcel Mochet / Ethan Miller

The kind of penguins that are the stuff of children’s nightmares used to roam the Earth millions of years ago. According to new evidence gleaned from bone fossils, the colossal creatures once stood 2 meters tall and weighed over 100 kilograms.

Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche of the La Plata Museum in Argentina has uncovered evidence of the Palaeeudyptes klekowskii – a creature that lived some 37 to 40 million years ago. Acosta described the period as “a wonderful time for penguins”, especially as a large number of different species of the flightless bird lived alongside each other – about 10 to 14 different kinds.

Her work took her to Seymour Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, where the climate used to be much warmer than it is in our era, something that resembles that of the southern tip of Latin America.

Among the thousands of penguin bone fragments found at the site, Hospitaleche uncovered what one of the most complete skeletons in her career, and yet, a few pieces of the puzzle were missing, the New Scientist reports.

AFP Photo / Martin Bureau

There, she came across two gigantic bones – one, part of a wing, the other, a link between a foot and an ankle, which measured a staggering 9.1 centimeters.

According to Dan Ksepka of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, the said bone “is the longest foot bone I’ve ever seen.”

The scientists calculated the beast measured about 2 meters in height – at least 50 centimeter higher than the previously described Palaeeudyptes Klekowskii penguins. The giant could also have weighed a hefty 115 kilograms.

By comparison, the largest penguin we have today – the Emperor penguin with its 46 kg weight and 1.3 meter height – does not even clock in at half of the new Palaeeudyptes Klekowskii species.

AFP Photo / Yoshikazu Tsuno

It is also likely that the changes in proportion also brought about changes in lifestyles.

The larger creatures are thought by science to have been able to dive much deeper and hunt or swim for longer periods underwater than their modern incarnations. According to Hospitaleche, something of the size she discovered could easily have stayed underwater for 40 minutes. This would mean a substantial change in the food the Palaeeudyptes Klekowskii used to hunt and eat.

The team however warns that the penguins of yesteryear had very different proportions to the ones seen today so these measurements will require further analysis.