Flying penguins chilling on tropical islands may have existed before the dinosaurs went extinct

Flying penguins chilling on tropical islands may have existed before the dinosaurs went extinct
Illustration of Kupoupou stilwelli penguins that existed 62.5 to 60 million years agoJacob Bloklan/ Flinders University.
  • New fossils show that penguins swam tropical waters before the solar ice cap even existed.
  • The discovery published in Palaeontologica Electronica points to penguins evolving rapidly after the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago.
  • It’s possible that they had the ability to fly before the extinction event.
Today, Penguins reside on the chilly banks of Antarctica and twaddle between land and the sea — but that might not have always been the case.

Before the solar ice cap was the formed, the oceans were tropical, and penguins were rushing along the evolutionary chain. Not unlike the penguins in the animated movie, Madagascar.

They might even have been able to fly, according to a new study published in Palaeontologica Electronica.

"It's not impossible that penguins lost the ability to fly and gained the ability to swim after the extinction event of 66 million years ago, implying the birds underwent huge changes in a very short time. If we ever find a penguin fossil from the Cretaceous period, we'll know for sure," said Paul Scofield, co-author of the study.

These new fossils appear to be from 62.5 million to 60 million years ago — making them the oldest penguin skeletons with proportions similar to the penguins we know today. And, it’s the first species to be discovered that has a similar limb development and foot shape.

When dinosaurs went extinct

Five new partial penguins skeletons found on the Chatham Island in New Zealand indicate that penguins evolved rather quickly after the dinosaurs went extinct.

"We think it's likely that the ancestors of penguins diverged from the lineage leading to their closest living relatives — such as albatross and petrels — during the Late Cretaceous period, and then many different species sprang up after the dinosaurs were wiped out," explained Scofield.

Late Cretaceous is the time period before an asteroid wiped the dinosaurs out — 110.5 to 66 million years go.

Not so different after all

The species dubbed Kopoupou Stilwelli after the palaeontologist who made the discovery — Jeffrey Stilwell — were similar in size to a species we know today, King Penguins. Only, the new species had shorter legs.

So, when on land, the penguins ‘waddle’ was a little more pronounced.

Like King Penguins, they also performed best underwater.

"This penguin is the first that has modern proportions both in terms of its size and in its hind limb and foot bones (the tarsometatarsus) or foot shape."

Fossils found earlier this year suggested that another species of penguins, during the same time period, may even have been human-sized. It’s possible that both swam alongside each other.

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