Fossils of a giant, 5-foot-tall, 130-pound penguin have been unearthed by paleontologists digging along a cliff face in Peru's Paracas Nature Reserve, according to Nature. The incredible find dates back 36 million years and reveals invaluable clues as to how birds built for flight eventually evolved to swim.
The specimen was so well preserved that it retained intact pigments — rare for a find this ancient — and researchers were able to uncover the colors of the extinct penguin's feathers. One of the most surprising discoveries was that the giant bird did not showcase the typical black and white plumage of modern day penguins, but instead sported gray and reddish-brown feathers.
Julia Clarke, a palaeontologist at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, said that this discovery could change a number of prevailing stereotypes about the evolution of penguins. "In my own personal vision I thought ancient penguins were black and white," she admitted.
The feathers were also unusual in that their melanosomes, structures inside feather cells which give them their color and stiffness, were nearly spherical in shape. This means the feathers were more similar to those of modern petrels and albatrosses — airborne birds closely related to penguins — than to modern penguins. The ancient penguin would have therefore represented a bird just starting to adapt to swimming.
"This is an understudied locomotor transition," said Clarke.
The ancient penguin was also big — really big. It would have stood at about 5 feet tall and weighed over 130 pounds, making it twice as heavy as a modern day emperor penguin and quite possibly the largest penguin ever found.
Aside from its size and the fact that it wore unusual colors, the fossil also included a long, hooked beak. It was named Inkayacu paracasensis, which means "the water emperor of Paracas."