Sunday, June 12, 2016

The lost history of Australian penguins

Friday 10 June 2016

Penguin Image: A little penguin in a collection of fauna at Museum Victoria. (Supplied/Museum Victoria/Ben Healley) 
Little penguins might be the only species of penguin currently found in Australia, but it wasn't always that way. Researchers at Museum Victoria and Monash University are looking deep into the past in an attempt to uncover millions of years of lost penguin history.
Giant, 1.5 metre-tall penguins moved about the Australian coast five million years after they'd become extinct everywhere else in the world.
I'm very biased, but it's an important piece of history and it's one that has traditionally been left out of the global narrative.
Travis Park, palaeontologist
'They had really long, spear-like beaks around 40 centimetres long. They wouldn't be something you'd be rushing down to Phillip Island to see any time soon,' says palaeontologist Travis Park.
Park is currently part of a research project across Museum Victoria and Monash University looking at the 'lost history' of Australian penguins.
According to the researcher, the giant penguin species was just one of many penguin species that migrated to Australia before eventually going extinct.
'There have been lots of times over the past 35 million years when penguins have come to Australia and colonised the country and then went extinct. It's happened again and again,' says Park.
'One species has come, say 30 million years ago, lived here for a while, then become extinct.
'Then 25 million years ago, another species has come and become extinct. It's pretty amazing.'
Travis Park Image: Travis Park compares the fossilised wing bone of a seven-million-year-old penguin with a modern penguin skeleton. (Supplied/Museum Victoria/Ben Healley)

Park says the team wanted to piece together the lost history of these penguins, to put them into a global context.
'I'm very biased, but it's an important piece of history and it's one that has traditionally been left out of the global narrative,' he says.
In the case of giant penguins, the research 'tentatively proposes' the species survived longer in Australia due to the isolation of the land mass. But why giant penguins died out remains unclear, partly due to a lack of fully formed fossils.
'Unlike New Zealand or South American countries, you're lucky if you have a complete bone, let alone a complete skeleton,' says Park.

Researchers are using Museum Victoria's existing collection and hoping for more fossils to emerge to help explain the species' history in Australia.
For Park, though, the nature of the research itself represents something of a dream gig.
'They're fantastic animals, and for me as a palaeontologist, to be able to trace their evolution and find out how they got to that stage is amazin


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