The four-foot penguin of NZ's past

22:52, Feb 27 2012
Kairuku penguin
KAIRUKU: 'An elegant bird by penguin standards.' Artwork by Chris Gaskin.

An "elegant" penguin with a slender body and long flippers lived in New Zealand about 25 million years ago, scientists have discovered.

The bird, which researchers have called Kairuku, stood around 121cm (4 feet) tall and had short, thick legs and feet.

Scientists reconstructed the penguin from two separate fossil skeletons collected in 1977 by a paleontologist from Otago University, and used the skeleton of an existing king penguin as a model, Science Daily reported.

The result was a tall bird with an elongated beak, the largest of the five penguin species that were common to the area in that time period.

"Kairuku was an elegant bird by penguin standards," lead researcher Dan Ksepka, from North Carolina State University in the US, said.

The bird was given the Maori name Kairuku, which loosely translated to "diver who returns with food".

Ksepka said New Zealand was a "great" location for penguins in terms of both food and safety.

"Most of New Zealand was underwater at that time, leaving isolated, rocky land masses that kept the penguins safe from potential predators and provided them with a plentiful food supply."

The findings were reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Ksepka hoped the reconstruction of the penguin would add to the knowledge of giant penguin species.

"This species gives us a more complete picture of these giant penguins generally, and may help us to determine how great their range was during the Oligocene period."

Ksepka's research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and support from the University of Otago.