SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Researchers have stumbled upon the remains of a previously unknown species of penguin that pre-dates the Polynesian settlement of New Zealand nearly half a century ago.
Australian and New Zealand researchers, from the University of Adelaide and the University of Otago, were studying fossils they believed to be of the more commonly known, and now endangered, yellow-eyed penguin when DNA tests revealed they actually belonged to a new species, the Waitaha penguin.
"In the process of studying yellow-eyed penguins we accidentally discovered this extinct species, which looks like it was unique to the south island of New Zealand," Dr. Jeremy Austin a senior researcher at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide told Reuters.
"When the team started to compare the older material with the modern penguin the bones were different in size, the clearest picture is they are a bit smaller," he said.
The Waitaha penguins' extinction created an opportunity for the yellow-eyed penguin to subsequently colonize the New Zealand mainland from its base in the sub-Antarctic islands.
The yellow-eyed penguin is considered one of the world's rarest penguin species, with an estimated population of 7,000 in New Zealand. It is the focus of an extensive conservation effort.
Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Otago said in a statement that previous analysis of fossil records and anecdotal evidence had suggested that the yellow-eyed penguin was more abundant and widespread in the past.
"But it now appears this iconic New Zealand species had only been around on the South Island for 500 years," she added.
Austin said the Waitaha penguins' extinction was probably related to the arrival of the Polynesian settlers.
The researchers said the surprising finding demonstrates the unexpected ways in which species can respond to human and environmental impacts, and the role of extinction events in shaping our current environment.
The findings were published this week in the "Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences," an international biological research journal.
(Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy)