The Water King -A Prehistoric Penguin as Tall as a Human Discovered

Ancient-huge-penguins-beach_26835_600x450 Thirty-six million years ago, a rediish-brown penguin with an elongate, prominent beak called the Water King stood nearly as tall as a man and sported shades of red and gray, scientists at the University of Texas announced Thursday. The scientists reported finding the fossilized remains of a new species of giant penguin in a Peruvian desert. Paleontologist Julia Clarke of the University of Texas, Austin described what these huge birds looked like and how the new finding can help explain penguin evolution. 

Along with at least two other giant prehistoric penguins, the fossil species was discovered in Peru in 2007 but announced only this week. Lab researchers recently recovered wing feathers and smaller body feathers from the 5-foot-tall (150-centimeter-tall) penguin species—today's biggest living penguin species, the emperor, is just under 4 feet (120 centimeters) tall.

"We found that the leading edge of its wing was gray, and the underside of the wing was a reddish brown," said study leader Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin. But the team doesn't have enough feathers from the fossil to determine the colors of its entire body. The finding is the first time feathers and preserved scales from an ancient penguin have ever been found. It's also the first direct proof scientists have that the distinctive color pattern of living penguins is likely a recent innovation, which may have been more about swimming than sex or camouflage.

There was a range of colorations in these early penguins outside of the range seen in any living penguins alive today. "We've been able to determine is that a reddish-brown coloration is supported for the underside of the wing, and a gray tone on the leading edge of the wing, and that some of the body feathers that we have also yield support for a reddish-brown coloration," Clarke said.

The team made the discovery when they compared microscopic pigment packets, called melanosomes, in the fossil feathers to melanosomes of modern birds and penguins. Based on the fossil melanosomes' shapes and sizes, the scientists were able to determine the feathers' original colors.

Perhaps it was a response to the rise of new penguin predators, such as seals, study leader Clarke said. In a phenomenon called countershading, modern penguins' white bellies camouflage the birds against the sky, at least from the vantage point of a swimming predator looking up. To a predator looking down, a penguin's black back vaguely matches the dark depths below. The melanosome evidence suggests the tuxedo look might have been a side effect of the birds' increasingly aquatic lifestyle.

The water king's melanosomes had a similar structure and organization as those of living birds that have reddish brown and/or grey feathers, including robins and zebra finches, the team noted. But the fossil pigment packets are very different from those of living penguins, which have larger, rounder melanosomes that are packed together like grape clusters.

It's possible, the team speculates, that the melanosome metamorphosis made penguin feathers stronger—helping transform their wings into stiff, narrow "flippers" for swimming—or conferred some other unknown advantage.

"We're proposing that these shape shifts in penguin melanosomes may not have anything directly to do with color," Clarke said. The black-and-white look may have arisen "due to changes in penguin ecology that we haven't figured out yet. We just don't know,"

Casey Kazan



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