A species of penguin, previously unknown to science, has recently been identified in New Zealand more than 500 years since it became extinct.
The species, called the Waitaha penguin (Megadyptes waitaha), is thought to have become extinct shortly after Polynesian settlement.
“It is estimated that the so-called Waitaha penguin became extinct between 1300 and 1500AD, soon after Polynesian settlement,” said Sanne Boessenkool, University of Otago PhD student and leader of the project.
Enter The Yellow Eyed Penguin
One of the most significant findings from the research is that, the penguin’s extinction appears to have made way for the yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes).
With an estimated 7000 remaining in New Zealand, the yellow eyed penguin is one of the most endangered penguin species on the planet.
“Our findings demonstrate that yellow-eyed penguins on mainland New Zealand are not a declining remnant of a previous abundant population, but came from the sub-Antarctic relatively recently and replaced the extinct Waitaha Penguin,” said team member Dr Jeremy Austin, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.
“Previous analysis of fossil records and anecdotal evidence suggested that the yellow-eyed penguin was more abundant and widespread in the past, but it now appears they have only been around for 500 years,” he continued.
The presence of the Waitaha penguin appears to have limited the yellow eyed penguin’s population to the South Island of New Zealand.
“Competition between the two species previously prevented the yellow-eyed penguin from expanding northwards but environmental changes in the predator population, such as the severe decline of sea lions, may have facilitated their colonisation in the South Island” Dr Austin said.
Relevance To Climate Change
The research has reiterated the idea that some species are more adaptable to major changes, such as climate change, than others.
“What these unexpected results highlight is the dynamic nature of ecosystem change, where the loss of one species may open up opportunities for the expansion of another.” said Dr Phil Seddon, Director of the Wildlife Management Programme at University of Otago.
Dr David Penny of the Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at Massey University said ”…it is vitally important to know how species, such as the yellow-eyed penguin, are able to respond to new opportunities.”
“It is becoming apparent that some species can respond to things like climate change, and others cannot. The more we know, the more we can help.”
Findings of the research have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.