Modern penguins are small and cute, but scientists in Peru have discovered the 36-million-year-old remains of an extinct penguin that was nearly five feet tall.
Palenontologists from the University of Texas at Austin have dubbed the new species, Inkayacu paracasensis, meaning Water King. They believe this massive water bird was about twice the size of an Emperor penguin, the largest penguin species alive today.
There is also evidence that unlike current penguins, the Water King had reddish brown and grey feathers.
“Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colors and flipper shapes of ancient penguins,” says Julia Clarke, lead author of a paper on the discovery in Science. “We had questions and this was our first chance to start answering them.”
Bird feathers get some of their colors from the size, shape, and arrangement of nanoscale structures called melanosomes (Futurity.org).
In order to reconstruct the Water King’s coloring, researchers compared melanosomes from the fossil to those of living penguins.
They found that the meloanosomes from living bird species were different in shape, size, and arrangement than that of the fossil. These differences would have altered the feather microstructure on the nano and micro scale, giving the feathers of later birds more resistance to wear and fracturing.
It’s possible that penguin coloring changed over time to help the birds evade primary predators such as seals or to adapt to environmental changes.
Learn more about the Water King!
Image Credit: University of Texas at Austin