Julia Clarke, UT
Austin: Inkayacu Paracasensis Fossilized Five Foot Penguin Found in Peru
October 4, 2010
Paleontologists have unearthed the
first extinct penguin with preserved evidence of scales and feathers.
The 36-million-year-old fossil from Peru shows the new giant penguin's
feathers were reddish brown and grey, distinct from the black tuxedoed
look of living penguins.
reconstruction of Inkayacu, or Water King, a giant fossil penguin
discovered in Peru. Illustration by Katie Browne.
The new species, Inkayacu
paracasensis, or Water King, was nearly five feet tall or about twice
the size of an Emperor penguin, the largest living penguin today.
"Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colors and
flipper shapes of ancient penguins. We had questions and this was our
first chance to start answering them," said Julia Clarke, paleontologist
at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences and
lead author of a paper on the discovery in the Sept. 30 online edition
of the journal Science.
The fossil shows the flipper and
feather shapes that make penguins such powerful swimmers evolved early,
while the color patterning of living penguins is likely a much more
Like living penguins and unlike all other birds, Inkayacu's wing
feathers were radically modified in shape, densely packed and stacked on
top of each other, forming stiff, narrow flippers. Its body feathers had
broad shafts that in living penguins aid streamlining the body.
Bird feathers get some of their colors from the size, shape and
arrangement of nanoscale structures called melanosomes. Matthew Shawkey
and Liliana D'Alba, coauthors at the University of Akron, compared
melanosomes recovered from the fossil to their extensive library of
those from living birds to reconstruct the colors of the fossil
Melanosomes in Inkayacu were similar to those in birds other than living
penguins, allowing the researchers to deduce the colors they produced.
When the team looked at living penguins, they were surprised to find
their colors were created by giant melanosomes, broader than in the
fossil and in all other birds surveyed. They were also packed into
groups that looked like clusters of grapes.
Why, the researchers wondered, did modern penguins apparently evolve
their own special way to make black-brown feathers?
The unique shape, size and arrangement of living penguin melanosomes
would alter the feather microstructure on the nano and micro scale, and
melanin, contained within melanosomes, is known to give feathers
resistance to wear and fracturing. Perhaps, the researchers speculate,
these shifts might have had more to do with hydrodynamic demands of an
aquatic lifestyle than with coloration. Penguin colors may have shifted
for entirely different reasons related to the later origin of primary
predators of extant penguins such as seals or other changes in late
"Insights into the color of extinct organisms can reveal clues to their
ecology and behavior," said co-author Jakob Vinther at Yale University,
who first noted fossil preservation of melanosomes in bird feathers.
"But most of all, I think it is simply just cool to get a look at the
color of a remarkable extinct organism, such as a giant fossil penguin."
Inkayacu paracasensis (een-kah-yah-koo par-ah-kah-sin-sis) was
discovered by Peruvian student Ali Altamirano in Reserva Nacional de
Paracas, Peru. Inkayacu's body length while swimming would have been
about 1.5 meters (five feet), making it one of the largest penguins ever
to have lived. When the team noticed scaly soft tissue preserved on an
exposed foot, they nicknamed it "Pedro" after a sleazy or "escamoso"
(scaly) character from a Colombian telenovela.
latest discoveries add to earlier work by Clarke and her colleagues in
Peru that challenges the conventional vision of early penguin evolution.
Inkayacu and other finds show there was a rich diversity of giant
penguin species in the late Eocene period (about 36 to 41 million years
ago) of low-latitude Peru.
"This is an extraordinary site to preserve evidence of structures like
scales and feathers," said Clarke. "So there's incredible potential for
new discoveries that can change our view of not only penguin evolution,
but of other marine vertebrates."
The fossil is part of the permanent collection of the Museo de Historia
Natural-UNMSM in Lima. An exhibit by expedition co-leader Rodolfo Salas
about the fossil will open at the Reserva Nacional de Paracas in
The National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation
provided funding for the research.