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New Fossil: 35 Million-Year-Old Penguin

Aug 27, 2015 01:02 PM EDT
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Penguin fossils found recently in Antarctica date back 35 million years. They provide researchers with valuable information regarding changes in penguins' brains that allowed them to transition to flying through water.

"Comparing multiple species (extinct and living penguins and living birds that both fly and dive), in the way our study does, brings us closer to the answers of two major questions about penguin brain evolution: (1) what major morphological changes have occurred, (2) when did these changes occur?" lead author Claudia Tambussi, said in a statement.

Of the fossils found, there was a well-preserved skull in good-enough condition to be CT-scanned for further analysis. From this, researchers discovered interesting traits of these early penguins that potentially explain their transitional nature. According to their study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the skull revealed many sensory abilities of the fossil species. For instance, the Wulst area, which is associated with complex visual functions in birds, was enlarged. 

"The Antarctic fossils reveal that the neuroanatomy of penguins was still evolving roughly 30 million years after the loss of aerial flight, with trends such as the expansion of the Wulst and reduction of the olfactory bulbs still in progress," co-author Daniel Ksepka said in the release. 

They also found clues in the ear region, regarding the head position and equilibrium-maintaining abilities of the fossil penguins. In total, the researchers found that compared to living forms, these early penguins had many of the same adaptations, with a few unique traits not seen in modern ones. They also noted that some of these adaptations are found in modern flying birds, which attests to penguin's unique mode of swimming. 

"Penguins are considered flightless, but when it comes to wing-propelled diving they are essentially practicing underwater flight. The brain morphology reflects this as penguins retain an overall 'flight-ready' brain," Ksepka added. 

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