The penguin would have lived between 27.3 million and 34.6 million years ago in Zealandia, an ancient continent about the size of Australia that is now almost entirely submerged beneath the South Pacific Ocean. The penguins are thought to have stood about four and a half feet tall.
The birds’ gangly bottom half helped researchers name the species. They chose Kairuku waewaeroa, using the term for “long legs” in Maori, the language of mainland New Zealand’s Indigenous peoples.
The penguin is a window into New Zealand’s long-lost past — a period in which sea levels rose and the continents assumed the shape we now recognize. There is an ongoing debate as to whether New Zealand was entirely submerged by shallow seas during the period.
“The fossil penguin reminds us that we share Zealandia with incredible animal lineages that reach deep into time,” said Daniel Thomas of Massey University, who co-wrote the article, in a news release. “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].”
Those kids are now adults, but current members of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club will continue to benefit from the fossil skeleton they donated to research. During the study, it was modeled using 3-D scanning. A 3-D-printed replica was produced for the club.