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25th June, 2007

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Puzzling penguins

Today's “National Geographic News” reports on the announcement by North Carolina State University paleontologist Julia Clarke and her colleagues of two species of extinct penguins that lived in what is now Peru's Atacama Desert about 35-42 million years ago. The larger of the two stood about 4.5 feet tall, making it the third largest penguin known of, and larger than any species alive today. One of the fossil discoveries consists of the first complete skull from an ancient giant penguin. Its beak was a foot long — longer than any known today. “It doesn't scale," Clarke said of the beak. "It's really pointed, and there's this texturing on the bone, a horny sheath. My speculation is that they're eating fish, using some kind of spearfishing." She also noted that the arrangement of muscles in its neck was unique and that its flipper structure indicated a different style of walking and swimming compared with today's penguins.

As with all other remains of penguins ever discovered, these birds lived in an area which is even today populated by penguins. (Penguins are found well up the west coast of South America.) What makes these penguins of particular interest is twofold: first, these remains push back the migration of penguins into warm equatorial regions thirty million years earlier than had previously been thought and, second, these newly-discovered species seemed to enjoy the warmth. All of today's penguins are designed for cold conditions. Those that live in tropical regions do so only by dint of cold currents — the

Benguela around South Africa and the Humboldt along South America's west coast — that keep air temperature in their immediate vicinity relatively low. Back when these penguins flourished in Peru the world was experiencing one of its warmest periods in the past 65 million years. Although the researchers believe that, as with modern species, they had access to cold ocean currents, they also believe, for reasons not made completely clear, that they were capable of enduring considerably warmer air temperatures than today's species. “What we think is important to recognize is that for a very large early part of their history, they didn't have that constraint [to colder climates]”, Clarke says.

So there you have it. Some ancient species of penguin, like so many people today, loved basking on a tropical beach. Finds such as these remind us that the world has not always been the way it is today and that many, many more species of animals, some familiar and some utterly bizarre to our way of thinking, have roamed our planet over millions of years than are alive today. One wonders why God chose to leave a trail of extinct creatures behind during the course of creation. We can only speculate; this author suggests that one reason is to show that God is capable of limitless creative ingenuity. At any one time, the limited size of our planet can support a limited number of species. Over the course of millions of years God has changed the cast of characters many times to demonstrate that today's assemblage did not exhaust His design capabilities.


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