A 34-million-year-old fossil discovered by schoolchildren on a beach in New Zealand has been confirmed as a new species of penguin.
Kids on a summer fossil-hunting trip with the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club in Kawhia Harbour, Waikato discovered the remains in 2006.
And scientists from Massey University in New Zealand have now finally revealed the skeleton belonged to a species previously unknown to humans.
The giant penguin has been called ‘Kairuku waewaeroa’, with the second part of the name taking inspiration from the Maori word for ‘long legs’.
Dr Daniel Thomas, a senior lecturer in zoology from Massey’s School of Natural and Computational Sciences, said: ‘The penguin is similar to the Kairuku giant penguins first described from Otago but has much longer legs.
‘These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive.’
It is thought Kairuku waewaeroa roamed New Zealand’s coastline some 34.6 to 27.3 million years ago, and dwarfed modern-day penguins with an estimated 4.7ft in height.
Researchers used 3D scans to reveal more about the ancient penguin, which would have been taller than many of the children who discovered it.
The study, published yesterday in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, adds the discovery is so far the most complete fossilised skeleton of an ancient giant penguin ever uncovered.
Dr Thomas added: ‘Kairuku waewaeroa is emblematic for so many reasons. The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time, and this sharing gives us an important guardianship role.
‘The way the fossil penguin was discovered, by children out discovering nature, reminds us of the importance of encouraging future generations to become kaitiaki [guardians].’
Steffan Safey, who was one of the children who discovered the fossil 15 years ago at the age of 13, said: ‘It’s sort of surreal to know that a discovery we made as kids so many years ago is contributing to academia today.
‘And it’s a new species, even! The existence of giant penguins in New Zealand is scarcely known, so it’s really great to know that the community is continuing to study and learn more about them.’
Dr Esther Dale, a plant ecologist who was involved in the discovery, said: ‘It’s thrilling enough to be involved with the discovery of such a large and relatively complete fossil, let alone a new species.
‘I’m excited to see what we can learn from it about the evolution of penguins and life in New Zealand.’
Mike Safey, the president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, said: ‘This is something the children involved will remember for the rest of their lives.’
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