Penguins are much older than previously thought and their evolution probably dates back to dinosaur times, according to a study of a giant ancient penguin fossil found in New Zealand.
The fossilized leg and toe bones found on the east of the South Island came from a huge penguin thought to be about 150 centimeters tall, the Christchurch-based Canterbury Museum announced Friday.
The new find, held at the museum, was one of the oldest penguin fossils in the world, dating back to 61 million years ago.
The bones differed substantially from previous penguin finds of a similar age and showed that the variety of Palaeocene penguins, living between 66 million and 56 million years ago, was greater than previously thought.
"Penguins had reached enormous proportions early on in their evolutionary history and were already more diverse 60 million years ago than we had previously assumed," said research leader Dr. Gerald Mayr of Germany's Senckenberg Research Institute.
"This diversity indicates that penguins probably evolved during the age of the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago," Mayr said in a statement.
The fossil was found in the Canterbury region's Waipara River, which was renowned for its rare but well preserved bird fossils deposited only 4 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, said museum senior curator Professor Paul Scofield.
"We have found turtles, many species of shark, giant fish, two types of flying birds and two species of a penguin-like bird named Waimanu, considered to be the oldest fossil of any group of birds living today," Scofield said in the statement.
"Until now it had been assumed that Waimanu was the only penguin alive during this time."
Research curator Dr. Vanesa De Pietri said the fossilized lower leg bone was very different from that of Waimanu, both in size and in anatomical detail.
"Looking at this and the toe bones of the newly-discovered penguin we think it also walked differently from the cormorant-like gait of Waimanu. The larger penguin was already waddling like the penguins we see today," De Pietri said in the statement.