'Monster' penguin once lived in Canterbury

A new species of giant penguin, which was about 1.6 metres tall, has been identified from fossils found in North Canterbury.

Drs Vanesa De Pietri, Paul Scofield and Gerald Mayr examine a Crossvallia waiparensis fossil at Canterbury Museum. Source: Canterbury Museum

The Crossvallia waiparensis, a "monster penguin", is from the Paleocene Epoch - between 66 and 56 million years ago.

The discovery adds to the list of gigantic, but extinct, New Zealand fauna, including the world’s largest parrot, a giant eagle, giant burrowing bat, the moa and other giant penguins.

Amateur palaeontologist Leigh Love found the bones at the Waipara Greensand fossil site in North Canterbury last year. C. waiparensis is the fifth ancient penguin species described from fossils uncovered at the Waipara Greensand site.

Canterbury Museum curators Dr Paul Scofield and Dr Vanesa De Pietri, and Dr Gerald Mayr of Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, analysed the bones and concluded they belonged to a previously unknown penguin species.

3D model shows the scale of the Crossvallia waiparensis penguin. Source: Canterbury Museum

Dr Gerald Mayr said the Waipara Greensand is arguably the world’s most significant site for penguin fossils from the Paleocene Epoch.

"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."

C. waiparensis is one of the world’s oldest known penguin species and also one of the largest. The species is taller even than today’s 1.2 metre Emperor Penguin and weighs up to 80 kilograms.

In a paper published this week in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, the team concluded that the closest known relative of C. waiparensis is a fellow Paleocene species Crossvallia unienwillia, which was identified from a fossilised partial skeleton found in the Cross Valley in Antarctica in 2000.

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Canterbury Museum Senior Curator Natural History Dr Paul Scofield said finding closely related birds in New Zealand and Antarctica showed the close connection New Zealand has to the icy continent.

"When the Crossvallia species were alive, New Zealand and Antarctica were very different from today – Antarctica was covered in forest and both had much warmer climates," he said. 

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