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Environment

Giant penguin fossil gives evolutionary clues

LIMA (Reuters) - The preserved feathers and scales of a giant fossilized penguin discovered on Peru’s central coast provide a glimpse of Peru’s Eocene period, and how the species evolved to its modern state, paleontologists say.

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The ancient version of the marine bird was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall and weighed almost 60 kg (132 lb), dwarfing today’s Emperor Penguin, the largest of the modern-day species.

“By looking at this fossil, we were prompted to ask new questions about living penguins and the world we live in today,” said Julia Clarke, an expert in avian anatomy at the University of Texas at Austin.

The paleontologists date the remains to 36 million years ago. They dubbed the ancient penguin “Inkayacu paracasensis,” which means “emperor of the water” in the indigenous language of Quechua.

“Without doubt this is the most complete specimen of ancient penguins that exists,” said Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, the lead paleontologist and the head of the University of San Marcos’ Museum of Natural History in Lima.

The mostly intact fossil skeleton allows scientists to understand the anatomy of early penguins, Salas-Gismondi said. The coloring of the fossil suggests penguins did not start off black and white, and may have evolved over time to adapt to new climate conditions.

“The feathers we discovered are a reddish-brown. It was rather large and lived in a period when the planet was very warm, totally unlike the penguins of today. This specimen is very important for understanding the evolution of modern penguins,” Salas-Gismondi said on Monday.

A young researcher first stumbled upon the remains in 2006, when he was studying the habits of aquatic birds in the Paracas National Reserve, 280 km (174 miles) south of Lima.

Salas-Gismondi, who led an excavation in 2007, says the skeleton was preserved under a protective blanket of sediment, in an anaerobic environment when world temperatures were at their highest. The teeth of a prehistoric whale and shark cartilage millions of years old have previously been recovered near Paracas.

“It was a truly incredible moment to see something like this for the first time,” Salas-Gismondi said.

The findings were first revealed in the September 30 issue of Science.

Reporting by Emily Schmall, Editing by Sandra Maler

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