Researchers from La Plata Museum and the Argentine Antarctic Institute discovered the fossilized skin of a 43 million-year-old giant penguin in Antarctica, on Marambio Island. It is the first specimen of its kind that has been discovered, and scientists hail the discovery as a unique, one-of-a-kind find.
Dr. Carolina Acosta Hospitaleche, a researcher at the Vertebrate Paleontology Division of the La Plata Museum (MLP) and CONICET, revealed that “the fossilization of the skin of this wing makes up a unique event because it is the first specimen of a penguin with preserved skin in the world”.
“It is the first penguin with skin preserved in this way, and even more so, the first representative of a modern bird with petrified skin worldwide,” added the lead author of the study recently published in the scientific journal Lethaia.
A different, greener Antarctica
43 million years ago, during the Eocene, Antarctica was not the white, frozen icy continent it is today.
In fact, millions of years, it was a much different place, suitable for life of all kinds. Researchers have found evidence that millions of years ago, Antarctica was home to incredibly lush forests and very diverse fauna.
And at that time, the continent was home to truly giant penguins.
These massive penguins are believed to have stood upright with more than two meters in height. In addition to massive penguins, the continent was also home to much smaller specimens that were no more than 50 centimeters tall.
The recently uncovered fossilized skin is believed to have belonged to a species called the Palaeeudyptes gunnari, one of the most numerous species of penguins that lived in Antarctica during the Eocene.
“The skin has been preserved as a fossil on both surfaces of the wing, packing the bones that have been articulated in their original position, including the elements that ossify from the tendons,” said Acosta Hospitaleche.
“This has given us the opportunity to analyze the connective tissue of the wing and the morphology and density of the skin follicles where the feathers are inserted.”
This discovery was made by Sergio Santillana of the Argentine Antarctic Institute during the 2014 Antarctic campaign.
The fossil was subsequently studied at the Museo de La Plata, in the capital of the province of Buenos Aires.
The researchers further revealed that in this fossil, the skin is completely naked, because the feathers were completely destroyed during the fossilization processes. However, Dr. Acosta Hospitaleche indicates that part of the organic matter that made up the feathers may have been sparsely preserved.
Comparison of this fossilized skin with today’s larger penguin species, such as the emperor penguin, shows that Palaeeudyptes gunnari, and probably other Antarctic Eocene penguins, already had adaptations to protect themselves from the cold.
The scientists have revealed in the new study that its plumage, less dense than that developed by modern penguins, demonstrates that the early acquisition of characters linked to adaptation to extreme cold would have been key to the success achieved by this group during the Eocene.