The Age of Giant Penguins

Shortly after the mass extinction, a new species of penguin that stood nearly 6 feet tall emerged

I’m a sucker for stories of ancient wildlife, especially species that evolved after the K-T extinction event did away with dinosaurs and gave rise to the age of mammals.

The leading theory for this mass extinction was an asteroid strike 66 million years ago. The impact set off a chain reaction of global fires and smoke that choked off sunlight during a long-lasting winter. There’s some debate, however. Volcanic activity or unrelated climate change may have played a role.

What everyone agrees on is that before the K-T boundary dinosaurs existed in the fossil record. After K-T, all dinosaurs are absent.

All, except for the surviving feathered dinosaurs we call birds.

Shortly after the mass extinction — “shortly” in evolutionary terms — a new species of penguin that stood nearly 6 feet tall emerged. We only know the species through the fossil record, but the suggestion of those preserved bones is that these were ocean going mega-predators. The birds had a large, spear like bill that was nearly a foot long. That bill would have been a formidable weapon for catching fish, or jostling for choice sites on the nesting grounds.

Penguins evolved from flying birds. A close modern relative is the auk, which fishes from the sky and is capable of diving underwater up to 200 feet. At some point in ancient penguin evolution, the birds traded flight for advanced skills underwater. Wings turned into short, rigid blades that help the birds maneuver. Modern penguins can swim up to 22 mph. The fastest swimming humans, Michael Phelps included, top out at about 6 mph.

Imagine looking at that bird, with that beak, eye to eye. Fortunately, all that underwater skill hobbles penguins on terra firma, so you don’t need to be Usain Bolt to out-waddle them.

The great size of these extinct penguins is probably explained by conditions in the ancient seas these birds waded into. Before K-T those seas were filled with reptilian mega-predators, like the 50-foot-long mosasaurus. But K-T wiped out those massive predators along with their land-dwelling cousins. The giant penguins had the seas to themselves.

But there’s no such thing as an ecological niche left unexploited. Just as ancient penguins traded flight for advanced swimming skills, land-dwelling mammals made a similar bargain, trading legs and feet for fins. These mammals evolved into penguin predators such as orcas, or competitors for fish: think sea lions.

Eventually the giant penguins gave way, but smaller birds that fill niches not exploited by larger sea-dwelling mammals remain. There are still nearly 20 species of penguins, almost all natives of the southern hemisphere. The largest modern penguin is the emperor, which stands 4 feet tall and is a bird I wouldn’t want to mess with.

In a way, Flathead Lake is a microcosm of the evolutionary experiment that was the ancient sea, albeit one playing out at an accelerated rate. Instead of new species evolving in the big lake — a geological infant that was carved out during the last ice age — we just started dumping new fish and shrimp into the water to see what would take. That seems to be one of our species’ greatest skills, taking natural processes and speeding them up, often with tragic results.

Much of the world’s mammalian megafauna went extinct following the last ice age. What’s left is struggling to survive due to exploding human populations. It’s too late for giant penguins, but not so for elephants or rhinos or tigers, or even bull trout. Saving them is one of the great challenges of the modern age.