Science

Four Penguin Species Used To Live In Africa

By Sean Kane , Mar 27, 2013 08:07 AM EDT
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Penguins used to live in Africa. Actually, they still do. Well, one penguin species lives in Africa.

But new research published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society has found that as many as four species of penguins once inhabited the continent. Currently, only one species of penguins lives on the continent, at the southern tip of South Africa. The black-footed penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is also known by its colloquial name, the jackass penguin, which got its nickname from its donkey-like braying call.

The study was led by co-authors Dan Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and Daniel Thomas of the National Museum of Natural History. The team found 10-12-million-year-old remains in 2010, near Cape Town, South Africa. The two were sifting through sediment near a steel plant. The specimens, 17 bone fragments, were found mixed up with animal fossils and shark teeth. The fragments are believed to be from wings, legs, backbones and breastbones from multiple now-extinct types of penguins.

Gaps in the fossil record are keeping scientists from pinpointing exactly what happened to the penguins of Africa.

"[Because we have fossils from only two time periods] it’s like seeing two frames of a movie,” Ksepka told Science Blog. “We have a frame at five million years ago, and a frame at 10-12 million years ago, but there’s missing footage in between.”

But there is good news. According to Thomas and Ksepka, humans probably did not cause the extinction (woo!). As it turns out, the non black-footed penguins probably died out before early humans migrated to South Africa.

That being said, though, the one remaining African penguin is threatened by humans. In the past 50 years, the black-footed penguin has fallen by 50 percent, and the species has been classified as endangered since 2010.

“There’s only one species left today,” Thomas said. “And it’s up to us to keep it safe.”

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