King size fossil penguin found, according to reports in BBC News, ScienceDaily and ScienceNOW 30 September 2010.

A group of scientists from USA and Peru have found the fossil of a giant penguin in rocks dated at 36 million years old in a nature reserve in Peru. Penguins are usually thought of as inhabiting the coldest regions of the southern hemisphere far from the equator, but the researchers say there is evidence for “a rich diversity of giant penguin species in the late Eocene period of low-latitude (close to equator) Peru.”

The newly discovered penguin was about 1.5m (almost 5ft) tall and has been named Inkayacu paracasensis, which means “water king of Paracas”. Paracas is the name of the nature reserve where it was found. The largest living penguin is the emperor penguin about 1.2m tall. The new fossil includes an intact skull with a long beak, wing and leg bones, vertebrae and impressions of feathers. These reveal that the penguin had the same streamlined body shape and flippers as in living penguins, and the same feather structure.

Penguin feathers are distinctively different from other birds having undifferentiated primary feathers (wing feathers), broad shafts on their body feathers and are tightly packed together. Some of the fossil feathers are well preserved and still contain melanosomes, the tiny vesicles containing melanin pigment that give feathers their colour. Living penguins have large melanosomes clustered together like bunches of grapes. This gives them a dense black colour on their wings and backs. The researchers found the fossil penguin melanosomes were smaller and not clustered together. From the size and organisation of the fossil melanosomes the researchers suggest the penguin had grey-brown feathers rather than the dense black of living penguins.

As well as colour, melanin is believed to give feather extra strength and resilience, so the researchers suggest the fossil penguin was still evolving and had not yet evolved the clusters of large melanosomes seen in living penguins, and therefore may not have been as efficient at swimming and diving.

However, Gerald Mayr, an ornithologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankurt, Germany, questions whether the melanosomes of living penguins evolved to make them better divers and swimmers because, while the outer feathers of many modern penguin wings are black, their inner feathers and their bodies are white. Mayr commented if the melanosomes were specialisations for aquatic life “one would expect penguins to be all black” to maximize the strength and rigidity that the melanin gives them.

BBC, ScienceDaily

Editorial Comment: Science can be an amusing art form. In man, black melanin intensity supposedly evolved to help combat heat and some of us went white to cope with the cold. With their cute waiter suits of black back and white fronts, penguins show such a theory to be ridiculous. Mayr is correct – whilst melanin can confer some strength and resilience to feathers, its absence does not make feathers useless, otherwise penguins would have feather covered fronts that would be useless. It is the overall shape and tight packing that makes penguin feathers uniquely suited to their aquatic life and the fossil penguin had these as well as the body and wing shape designed for swimming.

The only significant change in penguins revealed by this fossil find is that penguin species have decreased in both number and size. This is the opposite of evolution, but fits the Biblical record of original good world of fully formed creatures that has gone downhill and lost species.

Evidence News 27 October 2010

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