November 19, 2008

Extinct Penguin Species Helped Present Species To Thrive

Scientists have reported the discovery of a rare species of penguin that has been extinct for 500 years.

The Waitaha penguin first arrived on the islands of New Zealand around 1250. However, when Polynesian settlers entered New Zealand, the penguins became extinct by 1500 due to hunting.

Tests on the older bones "lead us to describe a new penguin species that became extinct only a few hundred years ago," the team reported in a paper in the biological research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Researchers also note that while human presence in New Zealand led to the extinction of the Waitaha penguin, it helped another species - the current species "“ to thrive.

Philip Seddon of Otago University, a co-author of the study said researchers conducted dating techniques on bones pulled from old Maori trash pits.

"The fact we find these bones in archaeological sites, villages or settlements, suggests hunting played a role. The birds were an easy target, easy to take and there were never very many of them," said lead researcher Sanne Boessenkool.

They found a gap in time between the disappearance of the Waitaha and the arrival of the yellow-eyed penguin.

There are only around 7,000 yellow eyed penguins, and their habitats seem to be diverse, as some have been found on the sub Antarctic Campbell and Auckland islands as well as 435 miles further north on the South-East coast of New Zealand's South Island.

The new species was discovered unintentionally when researchers were searching the genetic history of the yellow-eyed penguin.

"They were around 10 percent smaller [than the yellow eyed penguin] they were very closely related, but we can't say if they had a yellow crown. There are no records of their existence from the local Maori people," said Boessenkool.

"Often when we look back in time and date bones we don't think a couple of hundred years is important, but here you get a complete shift in just a couple of hundred years. These patterns might be more common, a view we don't consider when looking at large scale extinction events," she explained.

David Penny of New Zealand's Massey University, who was not involved in the research, said the Waitaha was an example of another native species that was unable to adapt to a human presence.

"In addition, it is vitally important to know how species, such as the yellow-eyed penguin, are able to respond to new opportunities," he said. "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."

Yellow-eyed Penguin Image Courtesy Christian Mehlfhrer - Wikipedia


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