Thirty-six million years ago, in the land of modern-day Peru, lived a five-foot tall penguin. Scientists announced on Friday the discovery of Inkayca paracacensis, a flightless seabird that makes today’s emperor penguins look shrimpy. Fossils of the giant penguin show that it had twice the body mass of an emperor penguin and a pointy beak about 23 centimeters long.
In a stroke of good luck, the fossils also held clues to the species’ coloration. By analyzing the fossilized impressions of color-holding microscopic structures called melasomes, the scientist learned that the giant penguin had gray and reddish-brown feathers.
“Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colors and flipper shapes of ancient penguins,” Julia A. Clarke, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement to the press.
Studying melasomes to analyze coloring in prehistoric animals is a relatively new technique. Last year, fossilized melasomes helped scientists discover the coloring of some feathered dinosaurs.
The scientists who discovered Inkayca paracacensis aren’t sure why the gray and red-brown birds evolved their modern tuxedo look. The transformation may have been due to pressure from new predators or a side-effect of the demands of underwater diving. Looking at fossils, we know the birds developed more streamlined bodies to aid in quick propulsion.
In the evolutionary march of the penguins, these were the tanks.
– Madeline McCurry-Schmidt