Penguins Might Not Have Always Worn Tuxedos, UT Paleontologist Finds

A rendering of a giant feathered penguinAbout 36 million years ago, penguins may have had a whole different color scheme.

A fossil discovered in Peru reveals the first evidence that the birds long associated with black and white might once have had brown and reddish-gray feathers.

The new species, Inkayacu paracasensis, was nearly five feet tall or about twice the size of an Emperor penguin, the largest living penguin today.

A UT scientist led the discovery, which sheds new light on penguin and bird evolution. As far back as 36 million years, penguins had developed the distinctive wing feathers that make them such good swimmers and so different from all other birds.

“Before this fossil, we had no evidence about the feathers, colors, and flipper shapes of ancient penguins,” said Julia Clarke, paleontologist at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences and lead author of a paper on the discovery in the journal Science. “We had questions, and this was our first chance to start answering them.”

Researchers aren’t sure why modern penguins evolved to their current black-and-white look. It could have had to do with changes to tiny structures called melanosomes, whose arrangement and size in bird feathers determine color. It might also have been an adaptation to more modern predators.

According to Clarke’s research, there used to be a rich variety of giant penguins during the Eocene period in what is now Peru.

This new fossil, discovered by a Peruvian student in a national reserve, was nicknamed “Pedro” after a sleazy or “escamoso” (scaly) character from a Colombian telenovela.

Illustration by Katie Browne. Photo of Julia Clarke by N. Adam Smith. More photos here.


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