Since today is Penguin Awareness Day, I thought I’d share an embarrassing penguin story of my own. It relates to the time I thought I’d found evidence of a giant penguin surviving into recent history…Penguins are, outside of the albatrosses, the most endangered group of birds on the planet. Of 18 species, 15 are in some danger of extinction. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is climate change.
But this blogpost concerns an already extinct group, Anthropornis. These were the largest penguins we know of, and stood nearly six feet tall. But they have been gone for around 35 millions years. Or at least they had, until one brief moment around 15 years ago when I thought I’d rediscovered them.
More accurately, I thought I’d found evidence for them still having survived till around the 17th Century, when they were presumably eaten to extinction by humans. So how did this amazing discovery happen?
I was looking through some 19th century books that contained a number of 16th and 17th century images of explorers, woodcuts that were contemporary to the stories they were telling. As I worked through these looking for images that would be useful, something jumped out at me. Hunters in the far south of Argentina. Hunting penguins. And there in the image was a six foot penguin.
Now, there are King penguins in South America, the second largest living species. But they are about three feet tall. This penguin was right next to a hunter, a man, and at least as big. I stared at the image but could only draw the one conclusion; it was an image of a giant penguin!
This is not an unheard of phenomena. In 1938 a museum curator specialising in fish was surprised to see, in the haul of a South African fisherman, a Coelacanth, a species thought extinct for 65 million years. We even have a term for these species that ‘raise from the dead’, Lazarus Taxa. And now I was going to add to the history books with my own fame-making discovery. So what went wrong?
Have you ever seen the episode of Father Ted were Ted is trying to explain perspective to Father Dougal? He’s trying to demonstrate that the toy cows on the table are small, but the live ones out the window are far away. Small. Far away. You can see where this is going…
After convincing myself of my remarkable discovery I went and showed a colleague, who immediately laughed in my face. As soon as they pointed out that the penguin was in the foreground and the hunter was in the back, it was obvious. There were bits of rock and grass to show this. I’d missed it entirely. The penguin wasn’t tall, the man was far away.
So, I felt like an idiot. Still do really. But if, in humiliating myself by making this public, I can do anything to raise awareness for the penguins we still have, it’s worth it.
If you have never seen Father Ted, you must. It’s a work of utter comic genius by Graham Linehan.