Australian fossil penguins – the story so far…

Everybody loves penguins. From Happy Feet to the plethora of nature documentaries on the breeding cycle of the Emperor penguin, who can resist that awkward shuffle on land and the effortless grace in water? One facet of the penguin story that most people won’t be as familiar with is penguin palaeontology. This field has seen a renaissance since the early 1990’s with New Zealand and South America and Antarctica leading the way and South Africa also having their fair share of attention. One region that has been left out of this flurry of penguin research is Australia.

The published fossil record of penguins in Australia, although limited compared to that of Antarctica, New Zealand and South America, spans some 40 million years from the late Eocene to Recent (Ksepka and Ando, 2011). The majority of previous work has been produced by one author, none other than George Gaylord Simpson (Simpson, 1957, 1959, 1965, 1970), with the first publication released in 1938 (Finlayson, 1938) and the last primary research conducted by Van Tets and O’Connor (1983) a 30 year lull! A total of ten different localities are known from South Australia and Victoria (Park and Fitzgerald, 2012). In addition to numerous unidentifiable fragments, a total of five species have been named from the Australian material: Pachydyptes simpsoni (Eocene); Anthropodyptes gilli (Miocene); Pseudaptenodytes macraei (Miocene); Pseudaptenodytes minor (Miocene) and Tasidyptes hunteri (Holocene). Only two of these (A. gilli and P. macraei) are at present considered taxonomically distinct and only one species (P. simpsoni) is known from associated remains. All other species are based on individual and/or partial specimens, with the majority of specimens being too fragmentary for identification below the family level.

Holotype of Pachydyptes simpsoni. Unfortunately this is the most complete fossil penguin yet found in Australia, perhaps a reason for the lack of research! From Park & Fitzgerald, 2012. Photo taken E. M. G. Fitzgerald.
Holotype of Pachydyptes simpsoni. Unfortunately this is the most complete fossil penguin yet found in Australia, perhaps a reason for the lack of research! From Park & Fitzgerald, 2012. Photo taken by E. M. G. Fitzgerald.

A new paper co-authored by myself and Dr. Erich Fitzgerald (senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at Museum Victoria) reviews the fossil record of penguins in Australia. Whilst the record is undoubtedly fragmentary, material is known from every epoch since the Eocene and virtually every find up until now has been by chance. So the potential is there for new discoveries to be made, should actually someone go and specifically look for fossil penguins. Furthermore, material has continued to accumulate in museum collections over the past 30 years despite the lack of research, some of it worthy of further study (keep your eyes peeled later in the year for that). So consider this an unfinished story, the fossil penguins of Australia have a few more tales to tell.

Link to the paper: http://museumvictoria.com.au/pages/41623/momv-2012-vol-69-pp309-325.pdf

References

Finlayson, H. H. 1938. On the occurrence of a fossil penguin in Miocene beds in South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 62:14–17.

Ksepka, D. T., and T. Ando. 2011. Penguins Past, Present, and Future: Trends in the Evolution of the Sphenisciformes; pp. 155–186 in G. Dyke, and G. Kaiser (eds.), Living Dinosaurs. The Evolutionary History of Modern Birds. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.

Park, T., and E. M. G. Fitzgerald. 2012. A review of Australian fossil penguins (Aves: Sphenisciformes). Memoirs of Museum Victoria 69: 309–325

Simpson, G. G. 1957. Australian fossil penguins, with remarks on penguin evolution and distribution. Records of the South Australian Museum 13:51–70.

Simpson, G. G. 1959. A new fossil penguin from Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 71:113–119.

Simpson, G. G. 1965. New record of a fossil penguin in Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 79:91–93.

Simpson, G. G. 1970. Miocene penguins from Victoria, Australia, Chubut, Argentina. Memoirs of the National Museum, Victoria 31:17–24.

Van Tets, G. F., and S. O’Connor. 1983. The Hunter Island penguin, an extinct new genus and species from a Tasmanian midden. Records of the Queen Victoria Museum 81:1–13.

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