New Zealand’s Ancient Monster Penguins Had Doppelgangers in Japan, the USA and Canada

“The human mind has gotten pretty smart, and my wild guess is it wouldn’t be wise to mess with this mutation.” (Reuters)

New Zealand has only ever had one species of penguin: the emperor penguin, and all the rest come from South America. But this little country was invaded by 17 penguin flocks from afar, and it turns out that all those birds really were as crazy as those newcomers were bizarre.

A study published this week in Nature and written by experts at George Washington University tells us that these new Kiwi penguins had an extra set of teeth, like the dominant species. In fact, they looked so much like the others that their ancestry was revealed, all along.

This came as no surprise to researchers, who had noticed a similar resemblance for decades, and whose work had led to New Zealand’s bird museum being named to honor (more along the lines of) the invaders. But the study helps fill in one part of the great mystery — which is, how did those New Zealand penguins came from so far away?

That answer is a happy one. Consider: the ancestors of the African, Greenland and Antarctic penguins had evolved to build elaborate nests, filled with tiny particles of lichen. In the course of their evolution, these flocks split into totally different breeds, and from the late 19th century onward, the most common flocks of all became the great variety of Asian birds found in China, Russia, Mongolia and northern Asia.

The new study focused on a little colony near Bluff. Not long after it was planted in 1930, the scientists working there began noticing that the house pigeons in the colony looked very different from the birds in all the other colonies — they both had a set of massive, akimbo teeth.

“In 1935, we were called to a colony where the house pigeons were found to have about twice the average number of teeth of other colonies,” Dr. R. William Beckman, a taxonomist at the University of Western Australia, told me. “Not only that, it seemed that the teeth of the house pigeons were shinier than they were in other colonies, so we decided to investigate it more closely.”

They found that the lone species that remained in the New Zealand colonies, the white sturgeon penguin, also had a very different set of teeth. In fact, the researchers found that all of the new species of new penguins had a different set of teeth, and the new breeds had different hair colors, a big clue as to how they got their unusual morphology.

After that, it’s only a question of how they did it. George Washington University experts Michael Hughes and Michael Chandler have developed a computer program that can actually recreate the genome of those rare New Zealand birds. And in just two or three years, they discovered that the fossil track record suggests that much of their ancestry came from Japan, the USA and Canada.

The researchers also conducted a computerized genetic analysis of the different breeds, and found that 60 percent of all the penguins on the planet are related to this single flightless species.

“The human mind has gotten pretty smart, and my wild guess is it wouldn’t be wise to mess with this mutation,” Beckman said. “New Zealand’s last three in particular could become extremely isolated as a result.”

When the island nation actually is home to this tiny island country, whose population is around 500,000 people, you have to admire the country’s low level of nationalism. If you hear a grumbling, or some kind of outcry, when the government decides to burn fossil fuels (as it did recently), or when it orders a fishery closed for a few months — well, then, it’s because you’re not the sole owner of your own island nation.

For sure, the arrival of so many Asian penguins added pressure to the once-natural food supply for the native, coastal king penguins, which brought with them so many external predators. But in the end, perhaps these invaders were an unalloyed good for the local wildlife.

In the end, perhaps the best way to handle penguins would be to just accept them as part of the ecosystem. Then they’d be much easier to keep in check.

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