They look so awkward as they go … so clever in the water. And in the air? Yes, the old penguins flew. The first penguins existed about 62 million years ago. They swam in tropical waters buried by the continental mass that now corresponds to New Zealand. These monsters could be six feet tall. They thrived without difficulty due to the absence of predators. At some point, they decided to change. They would use their wings to move in the water instead of flying over the sea.
The distant cousins
The so-called Plotopterids appeared in the northern hemisphere 37 million years ago. They were flightless seabirds that were related to today’s cormorants and boobies. They used their wings – like fins – to swim. They couldn’t thrive. They died out about 25 million years ago.
Scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute and the Frankfurt Natural History Museum have decided the relationship between the two species. The team is led by Gerald Mayr. Their conclusions have been compiled in a study published in Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolution Research.
The protopterids were very similar to penguins. Both ancestral birds developed these wing characteristics independently of one another, the researchers say.
They discovered that both the plotterids and the old penguins had other similarities. Long beaks, in addition to very similar bones in the chest and shoulders and very similar wings. These coincidences suggest that both groups of birds were strong swimmers. They used their wings to move underwater in search of food. In addition, some species in both groups were of considerable size. The largest known plotterids could be longer than two meters. And some giant penguins were over a meter long.
Each in his own way
“The most surprising thing is that they developed these common properties independently of one another,” says Dr. Vanessa De Pietri from the Canterbury Museum. This is an example of what we call evolutionary convergence. It is when distant related organisms develop similar morphological features under similar environmental conditions. “Plopper perides looked like penguins, swam like penguins, probably ate like penguins. But they weren’t penguins.”
“They had the same characteristics of the locomotive, so it is likely that they developed in the same way.” Dr. Mayr explains. He suggests that this fact could explain why birds started using wings to swim instead of flying. “Penguins were the first birds to develop this ability,” says the researcher. When old penguins flew, how did this convergent development come about? Are there more similar cases? Why is this species extinct even though it has the same abilities as its relatives, the penguins? “It is difficult to know,” explains Dr. Mary, “perhaps for environmental reasons or because of competition for the best breeding areas.” However, further research will shed new light on these and other questions.