A new study uncovers the long 60 million-year-long history and evolution of the incredible aquatic animal: the penguin. The study published in the journal Nature Communications dated the origin of penguins back over 60 million years and identified genes that were essential to their adaption for underwater vision, long dives, body temperature regulation, diet, and body size.
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According to the researchers, penguins evolved from an ancestor related to a group of seabirds, including albatrosses and petrels. When penguins acquired the ability to dive, they lost the ability to fly but became great divers and swimmers.
The researchers looked at the genomes of 20 living penguin species and subspecies. Over three-quarters of penguin species are extinct, so researchers also took skeletal data from 50 fossil species. The first known penguin to exist is called the Waimanu manneringi, from New Zealand, which existed 5 million years after the mass extinction of dinosaurs.
“To me, penguins are a perfect example of a major evolutionary transition, like the evolution of an aquatic lifestyle in whales or flight in bats,” said avian paleontologist and co-author of the study Daniel Ksepka.
“We know penguins evolved from flying birds, but that happened over 60 million years ago and we need to look to the fossil record to piece together where, when and how that happened. Plus, penguins are ridiculously charming creatures. They love, they fight, they steal, and because of their funny upright posture it’s really easy to imagine them having all the same motivations as people,” Ksepka said.
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They found that penguins had the lowest evolutionary rates yet detected among birds. They also found that they have the ability to detect salty and sour tastes, which helps them hunt their prey. Penguins have flat and stiff bones in their winds which also help to double as flippers for them in the water. For diving, penguins have evolved to be able to store oxygen in their muscles so that they can dive longer.
Interestingly, penguins today are significantly smaller than they used to be. The Kumimanu biceae, which inhabited New Zealand between 55 and 60 million years ago, was 6 feet tall. Sign this petition to save the penguins!
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