Kumimanu fordycei: The Giant Penguins of the Paleocene Epoch

Guest “Scale and Context” by David Middleton

Figure 1. Cenozoic Era geologic time scale. (ICS)

If Global Warming Is Bad for Penguins, Why Were There Giant Penguins During the Paleocene?

FEBRUARY 9, 2023

Fossil bones from the largest penguin that ever lived unearthed in New Zealand
by Sarah Collins, University of Cambridge

Fossil bones from two newly described penguin species, one of them thought to be the largest penguin to ever live—weighing more than 150 kilograms, more than three times the size of the largest living penguins—have been unearthed in New Zealand.

An international team, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, reported the discovery in the Journal of Paleontology. The paper’s senior author, Alan Tennyson from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, discovered the fossils in 57 million-year-old beach boulders in North Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island, between 2016 and 2017.


“Fossils provide us with evidence of the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is truly surprising,” said co-author Dr. Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Many early fossil penguins attained enormous sizes, easily dwarfing the largest penguins alive today. Our new species, Kumimanu fordycei, is the largest fossil penguin ever discovered—at approximately 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than [basketball player] Shaquille O’Neal at the peak of his dominance!”



The paper is pay-walled. However, it’s fairly certain that these are fossils of Shaq-sized penguins (Shaquins) that lived approximately 57 million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch.

Paleocene Temperature and CO2

The Shaquins thrived when the average surface temperature of the Earth was likely 4-6 °C warmer than today, with atmospheric CO2 concentrations anywhere from 400 to 3,500 ppmv.

Older is toward the left on the following graph:

Figure 2a. Marine pCO2 (foram boron δ11B, alkenone δ13C), atmospheric CO2 from plant stomata (green and yellow diamonds with red outlines), Mauna Loa instrumental CO2 (thick red line) and Cenozoic temperature change from benthic foram δ18O (light gray line).
Figure 2b. Legend for Figure 2a.

Paleocene/Eocene Ice… Or lack thereof

We’ve been bombarded with claims that global warming and declining sea ice will drive the largest extant penguins to extinction.

Antarctica’s emperor penguins at risk of extinction due to the climate crisis

By Ashley Strickland, CNN
Published 9:16 AM EDT, Sat October 29, 2022

CNN — 

As Antarctica’s emperor penguins are increasingly threatened by the climate crisis, the flightless seabirds will receive new protections under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

With global warming melting the sea ice the penguins depend on for their survival, the US Fish and Wildlife Service now categorizes the species as threatened. The federal agency lists “imperiled species as endangered or threatened regardless of their country of origin.”


If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, leading to warming temperatures and melting Antarctic sea ice, 98% of the emperor penguin population could all but disappear by 2100, according to a study published last year in the journal Global Change Biology.

“The world needs to take aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, and the Paris Climate Agreement objectives must be met, to help prevent further population declines,” Jenouvrier said.



Right… Modern penguins will be driven to extinction by RCP8.5 and melting ice… While the largest species of extinct penguins thrived in a world that was largely devoid of year-round ice cover.

Older is toward the right on the following graph:

Figure 3.  High latitude SST (°C) From benthic foram δ18O.  Funny how the PETM is often cited as a nightmarish version of a real-world RCP8.5… While the warmer EECO is a climatic optimum. (Zachos et al., 2001). Note: Older is to the right.

Shaquins thrived 15-20 million years prior to the establishment of the Antarctic ice sheet, at a time when year-round ice was pretty well limited to very high altitudes and sea ice (to the extent it existed) would have been seasonal.

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”

Penguins clearly evolved in a much warmer world, largely devoid of year-round ice and adapted to a much colder world with year-round icecaps and sea ice. They adapted to Late Pleistocene glacial and interglacial stages… But they can’t walk away from this?

Figure 4. High latitude SST (°C) From benthic foram δ18O (Zachos, et al., 2001) and HadSST3 (Hadley Centre / UEA CRU via http://www.woodfortrees.org) plotted at same scale, tied at 1950 AD.  Note: older is to the left.

The modern ~1 °C rise since pre-industrial times doesn’t even break out of the Quaternary Period noise level. Another 1 °C rise still won’t even break out of the Quaternary noise level, much less approach the warmth of the Paleocene. Bear in mind that the HadSST3 data are of much higher resolution than the δ18O time series.  The amplitude of the proxy time series on multi-decadal to centennial time-scales should be considered to be the minimum of the true variability on those time-scales, due to the much lower resolution than the instrumental data (Ljungqvist, F.C. 2010). 

Ponder this: Penguins first appear in the fossil record about 61 million years ago, barely 4 million years after the K-Pg extinction. They have thrived through much warmer and much colder climates of the Cenozoic Era, yet they are allegedly doomed by another 1 °C rise in temperature (1 °C is already “baked in”).

Penguins are one of the most iconic groups of birds, serving as both a textbook example of the evolution of secondarily aquatic ecology and as sentinels for the impacts of global change on ecosystem health1. Although often associated with Antarctica in the popular imagination, penguins originated more than 60 million years ago (Mya), evolving wing-propelled diving and losing the capacity for aerial flight long before the formation of polar ice sheets2. Over time, penguins evolved the suite of morphological, physiological, and behavioral features that make them arguably the most uniquely specialized of all extant birds. These adaptations have allowed penguins to colonize some of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Cole et al., 2022

The notion that penguins are seriously threatened by modern climate change strikes me as absurd. Although, I guess we can’t rule out the possibility that global warming may lead to the return of giant electric penguins…

Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Scott of the Antarctic, 1970


Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. Scott of the Antarctic. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Season 2, Episode 10. 1970.

Cole, T.L., Zhou, C., Fang, M. et al. Genomic insights into the secondary aquatic transition of penguins. Nat Commun 13, 3912 (2022). https://ift.tt/zmYtBC2

Jenouvrier, S., Che-Castaldo, J., Wolf, S., Holland, M., Labrousse, S., LaRue, M., Wienecke, B., Fretwell, P., Barbraud, C., Greenwald, N., Stroeve, J., & Trathan, P. N. (2021). The call of the emperor penguin: Legal responses to species threatened by climate change. Global Change Biology, 27, 5008– 5029.

Ksepka, D., Field, D., Heath, T., Pett, W., Thomas, D., Giovanardi, S., & Tennyson, A. (2023). Largest-known fossil penguin provides insight into the early evolution of sphenisciform body size and flipper anatomy. Journal of Paleontology, 1-20. doi:10.1017/jpa.2022.88

Ljungqvist, F.C. 2010. “A new reconstruction of temperature variability in the extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere during the last two millennia”. Geografiska Annaler: Physical Geography, Vol. 92 A(3), pp. 339-351, September 2010. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-459.2010.00399.x

Pagani, Mark, Michael Arthur & Katherine Freeman. (1999). “Miocene evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide”. Paleoceanography. 14. 273-292. 10.1029/1999PA900006.

Pearson, P. N. and Palmer, M. R.: Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 60 million years, Nature, 406, 695–699,https://ift.tt/kLi1UAX, 2000.

Royer, et al., 2001. Paleobotanical Evidence for Near Present-Day Levels of Atmospheric CO2 During Part of the Tertiary. Science 22 June 2001: 2310-2313. DOI:10.112

Steinthorsdottir, M., Vajda, V., Pole, M., and Holdgate, G., 2019, “Moderate levels of Eocene pCO2 indicated by Southern Hemisphere fossil plant stomata”: Geology, v. 47, p. 914–918, https://ift.tt/q3Q6N1H

Zachos, J. C., Pagani, M., Sloan, L. C., Thomas, E. & Billups, K. “Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present”. Science 292, 686–-693 (2001).

via Watts Up With That?


February 13, 2023 at 04:10PM

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