• Travis Park compares the fossilised wing bone of a seven-million-year-old penguin with a modern penguin skeleton. Photo credit: Museum Victoria/Ben HealleyTravis Park compares the fossilised wing bone of a seven-million-year-old penguin with a modern penguin skeleton. Photo credit: Museum Victoria/Ben Healley

The lost history of Australian penguins

In the UK, we’re used to seeing images of penguins surrounded by the snow and ice of Antarctica, but throughout history there have been many different types of penguins living in the southern latitudes of Australia as well.   Little Penguins are the only species currently found in the country, but researchers from Monash University and Museum Victoria are starting to unearth the lost history of Australian penguins.

Paleontologist Travis Park has been working on the research project and explains: "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. 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."

The research has revealed that giant 1.5 metre tall penguins, with spear-like beaks 40cm long, were moving about Australia five million years after the species died out elsewhere in the world.

Park says the team wanted to piece together the lost history of these different species of penguins and put them into a global context.

In the case of the giant penguins, the research 'tentatively proposes' that the species survived longer in Australia due to the isolation of the land mass. Although it remains unclear as to why they eventually died, 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," explains Park.  Researchers are using Museum Victoria's existing collection and hoping for more fossils to emerge to help explain the species' history in Australia.

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