When Penguins Went From The Sky To The Sea
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When Penguins Went From The Sky To The Sea

March 25, 2020


About 61 million years ago, on the shore of
what’s now the South Island of New Zealand, there lived a bird. It stood upright, measured about a meter tall,
with wings that were pretty short for its large body, and a long, narrow bill. And it couldn’t fly, but it used those short
wings to propel itself into the coastal waters of the Paleocene Epoch. The scientists who described this creature
named it Waimanu manneringi And it’s the oldest fossil that we’ve
ever found of a penguin. From the shape of its skeleton, paleontologists
can tell that Waimanu was already a flightless waterbird, like modern penguins. But they don’t know what came before it
— what the transition from flying bird to early penguin looked like. The fossils that could describe that for us
have yet to be discovered. But experimental work on modern birds that
can both dive and fly is giving us clues about what it took for penguins to go from the sky
to the sea. And the world those first penguins lived in? That helped shape them, too. Because why penguins gave up on flying is
just as interesting as how it might’ve happened. Waimanu lived just a few million years after
the extinction that took out the non-avian dinosaurs and all the predatory marine reptiles
that had ruled the oceans of the Mesozoic Era. So, in taking to the water, Waimanu managed
something its non-avian dinosaur ancestors never had: it became fully aquatic. And Waimanu was only the first member of what
would become a very diverse and sometimes strange group of diving birds. Today, we think of penguins as small-ish,
waddling, tuxedo-birbs. But they evolved from a flying ancestor, were
actual giants for millions of years, and some of them were even dressed a little more casually. The thing to know about modern penguins is
that they’re really specialized for underwater life. While they still have to molt and breed on
land, they’ve evolved a ton of features that make them dynamic marine predators. For example, they’ve got unique scale-like
feathers that help keep them warm and dry in cold ocean waters. And they’ve also got structures called rete
mirabile systems in their limbs and their head. Incidentally, I saw this pronounced as “ree-tea” and “reet” so for this episode we’re going with “ree-tea” These networks of neighboring blood vessels
transfer heat between the arteries, where the blood coming from the heart is warmer,
and the veins, where blood is colder. This exchange helps keep the penguin’s core
temperature up by buffering the much cooler blood that is returning to the heart. Their wing joints are also stiffer than those
of flying birds, which helps them produce thrust on both the downstroke – like most
birds do – and on the upstroke of the wing. And the muscles that raise the wing on the
upstroke are much bigger than in other birds – so the place they attach on the penguin’s
shoulder blade is also much bigger than in other birds This powerful double-stroke allows penguins
to move easily through water, which is denser than air. Their bones are also denser than you find
in flying birds. After all, penguins aren’t trying to stay
up in the air; they’re fighting against the buoyancy of seawater. AND! Those dense bones are part of what gives penguins
such a great fossil record! Now, we haven’t yet found enough fossils
to completely fill out the penguin family tree. But we know they evolved from a flying ancestor. The closest living relatives of the penguins
are the Procellariiformes which includes albatrosses, petrels, and storm petrels. And they all fly. And based on studies that use a combination
of genetics, skeletal similarities, and LOTS of statistics, it seems that the split between
the two groups probably happened in the Late Cretaceous Period, sometime between about
71 million and 66 million years ago. So why would a bird trade the ability to fly
for a lifestyle of full-time diving? After all, flight is energetically expensive,
but it helps you do things like travel long distances and avoid predators. Well, one answer is that it’s hard to be
really good at both, in terms of anatomy and biomechanics. And in a paper published in 2013, researchers
compared energy use in two species of living birds to figure out why. They studied thick-billed murres, which are
wing-propelled divers, and pelagic cormorants, which are foot-propelled divers. Now, both of these species also fly, so the
researchers could calculate the energy costs for that, too. And they found that the more specialized wings
become for diving, the worse they were for flying. For wing-propelled diving, you need a large body size and shorter,
flatter wings with dense, enlarged bones, because all of
these things maximize the length and efficiency of every dive. But these features are also the exact opposite
of what you need for efficient flight. So, there’s a pretty straightforward trade-off
in anatomy here. And it might be that the ecological conditions
in which penguins evolved probably made it easier for some birds to give up flight in
favor of diving. In the aftermath of the extinction at the
end of the Cretaceous, diving predators like small mosasaurs and plesiosaurs were gone,
so their ecological niches were suddenly open. And the larger marine reptiles and sharks
that had made the seas so treacherous for diving birds were gone, too. So, with a new potential source of food and
fewer predators, those penguin ancestors that were better divers might have had an advantage,
being able get more food while using less energy. And once they started down the path toward
“underwater flight,” there was no stopping them. They spread quickly, by geological standards,
to most of the places that we find them today. We don’t know what those first penguins
looked like, because we haven’t found any fossils that show this transition directly. But what we can say is that they were probably
around 1 kilogram. Because, that’s the biggest that living
birds get that can do both wing-propelled diving and flying. And it’s also the size of the smallest living
penguin. From there, true penguins probably evolved
in what’s now New Zealand in the early Paleocene Epoch, around 61 million years ago, with Waimanu
and its relatives. From there, they made it to Antarctica by
the late Paleocene, between 59 million and 56 million years ago. And they arrived in South America by the middle
Eocene Epoch, around 42 million years ago. By the late Eocene, between 37 million and
34 million years ago, there were at least two genera of penguins in Australia. Oh, and did we forget to mention that many
of these penguins were huge? Well, huge for a penguin. The largest living penguin is the emperor
penguin, which stands a little over a meter tall and can weigh up to 40 kilograms or so. It’s not a smol birb. But it would’ve looked smol next to some
of its Paleocene relatives from New Zealand. Crossvallia was just over 1.5 meters tall,
and weighed nearly twice as much as an emperor penguin, between 70 and 80 kg. And Kumimanu was even bigger – it stood about
1.7 meters tall and tipped the scales at just over 100 kg. Both of these species show up not long after
penguins first evolved. This tells paleontologists that not having
to fly anymore meant they could go all-in on becoming more efficient divers, and several
groups independently developed large body sizes as a result. And those guys weren’t even the biggest
penguins that we’ve found. Antarctica in the Late Eocene, was home to
at least two more species of giant penguin. Anthropornis was about the size of Kumimanu
– close to 2 meters tall and about 100 kg. Very respectable for a giant penguin. But one species in the genus Palaeeudyptes
was the penguin heavyweight champ. It stood just over 2 meters tall and weighed
about 115 kg. And finally, another of these Late Eocene
giant penguins wasn’t the dapper bird we picture today when we think of penguins. We call it Inkayacu, and it lived in what’s
now Peru It was found with fossilized feathers that
contained preserved melanosomes, the parts of cells that make and store pigment. And its melanosomes didn’t look like the
ones found in living penguins. Instead of making its feathers black and white,
they looked like those of other modern birds that are gray and reddish-brown! The giant penguins were successful for millions
of years, but they’d mostly disappeared by about 23 million years ago and were totally
gone by 18 million years ago. And the cause might have been the rise of
marine mammals, especially new groups of toothed whales that happened in the Oligocene Epoch. Toothed whales and pinnipeds, like seals and
sea lions, might have competed with the giant penguins for food. Or they might’ve seen the giant penguins
as food. And social pinnipeds might’ve competed with
the penguins for safe places to breed, too. But the jury is still out, because testing
hypotheses about competition in the fossil record is hard. All we can say for sure is that these groups
overlapped in time and space, and the giant penguins aren’t around anymore. Today, penguins still live on all of the southern
continents, from Antarctica all the way up to the Galapagos Islands, which they reached
about 4 million years ago, and where cold ocean currents keep the waters cooler. And we know a lot about their extinct relatives,
thanks to their dense bones and preference for living on the coast, because these things
made them more likely to be preserved than birds living farther inland. We’re still missing the fossils that capture
their transition from flying to diving, and there’s definitely more to figure out about
how and why that happened. But it looks like the story of penguins may
have been tightly linked to the rise and fall of the other organisms around them. The extinction of the marine reptiles at the
end of the Cretaceous left a lot of empty niches that they were able to dive into. …see what I did there? And then they got huge! Which I, for one, am pretty sad to have missed
out on. They spread throughout the southern continents,
until some of them lost out to new competitors, the marine mammals. And while we think of them as smallish, formally
dressed, flightless birds, for almost forty million years, penguins were some of the big
predators in the Cenozoic oceans – all because they could take advantage of one of our planet’s
major extinctions. And the penguins that are still around today
are the descendants of that ancient lineage that went from the sky to the sea. Thanks to The Great Courses Plus for supporting
PBS. The Great Courses Plus is a video learning
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at your own pace –when you want and where you want. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/Eons or click
on the link in the description to start learning with The Great Courses Plus today. Oversized flipper high fives to this month’s
Eontologists: Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng, Sean Dennis, and Steve! Become an Eonite by pledging your support
at patreon.com/eons! And thank you for joining me in the Konstantin
Haase Studio. Subscribe at youtube.com/eons for more amazing
prehistoric creatures!

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  1. A video that is twice as long as it needs to be. Why do American documentaries need to keep repeating what they have already said i.e. in this one it's about how big ancient penguins were. I for one am not a goldfish with a 7 second memory.

  2. Evolutionary Palaeontology: we don’t have any fossil proof of transition but we believe it happened so we’ll keep telling stories about how it must have occurred.
    Kinda sounds like creationism to me.

  3. How about pronouncing "thuh upstroke" as "thee upstroke" while you're fussing about pronouncing rete as "reet" or "reety"?

  4. Fish: The ocean is boring, let's go on land and become dinosaurs.

    Dinosaur: The land is also boring, let's go to the sky and become birds.

    Bird: The sky is also boring, let's go back to the ocean and become penguins.

    Other fish: bro wtf make up your mind

  5. How often does a new body plan appaer, you've talked about how a lot of body types and plans seem to appear from time to time as the result of convergent evolution like how ichthyosaurs are similar to dolphins or sharks. but how often does a new type of body plan that is perfectly adapted to a certain environment appear like for example humans don't seem like anything in the fossil record that wasn't either our ancestors or part of our family. Does this question make sense?

  6. How would oxygen be transported if veins that usually dont have oxygen mix with arteries? Is that different for animals?

  7. was curious if anyone knows why living on the coast instead of inland would preserve the fossils better like she said

  8. As someone who lives near Sydney Harbour and its population of penguins, I can say they are the most delightful of all birds. The funniest memory of them is coming across about a dozen of them waddling down a Manly street after dark. They were in the middle of the street with houses all around. They looked like they were sizing up their domain as if they were rulers of the universe. Because they live and breed just meters from houses and swim in a harbor full of ferries, ships, and yachts they are fairly fearless around humans. I am sure, that in their minds we are their pets, put here for their amusement. In the daytime it is not uncommon to see them swimming beside the ferry when crossing the harbor. I love our penguin neighbors.

  9. Those Ark Survival boys know this is the same cute critter you killed for organic polymer. Only gamers understand what I just said.

  10. If only the penguins had won. If only they'd continued to increase in size and outcompeted the seals and whales…
    …Then started eating the whales. Instead of the opposite, having penguins getting smaller to avoid being worth eating to whales, whales could have gotten smaller to avoid being worth eating to penguins. Huzzah for giant whale-sized penguins ruling over an ocean of terrified chihuahua-sized whales!
    (Nobody give me a time machine.)

  11. I love these kind of videos, the ones that expose me to an evolutionary branch I hadn't even thought about before! To think that since just after (or possibly before) the end of the Mesozoic, penguins large and small have been performing their daily tasks of acquiring food and frolicking. Not to mention puking into their adorable chicks' mouths.

  12. Anybody else reminded of the giant penguins from Dougal Dixon's Life After Man? He speculated what penguins might look like if they filled the niches that ceteceans have. Baleen beaks, fused limbs etc.

  13. So the closest relatives of perhaps the most famous flightless birds are the birds that literally spend the longest time in the air. And also, for those of you who live in the North Woods, loons aren't too far separated from them either.

  14. 2:12 yeah you want to keep pronouncing it the first way. "Rete" Is Italian for "net" and the second pronunciatian is just made up.
    As a side note, "mirabile" means "admirable", so it is an "admirable net", due to its amazing properties I would argue.

  15. Hey , could you do an episode on the origin and evolution of fish in general? It is a really confusing topic and I'd appreciate if an episode was made on this.

  16. Are there any penguin fossils known from Madagascar? And what about from India/Sri Lanka? It was much further south in the Paleocene than today.

  17. I don’t know if this has been done or asked before (I’m still going through your videos 😅) but would you do a video on the evolution of whales and dolphins and their prehistoric ancestors?

  18. I've been extremely disappointed when I discovered that emperor penguins are just 1m high, in my head they always were 2-2.5m or something – like a bear. This video makes me so incredibly satisfied that my dream penguins HAVE EXISTED.

  19. Admittedly, I haven't watched ALL of the PBS Eons videos, but there's one question you have never answered: Who the hell is Steve?

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