Genetic and fossil analysis published in July suggests penguins quit flying and became swimmers some 60 million years ago.
Scientists theorize penguins lost the ability to fly and, as a result, have developed hyper-specialized marine bodies over 60 million years of evolution, according to a study published in Nature. The team identified a number of genes that supported the rapid adaptation, including ones related to thermoregulation, diving, vision, diet, oxygenation, body size, and immunity, researchers noted in the study.
The team used the genomes from existing penguins and compared them to recently extinct members of the species, Live Science reported. The oldest known penguin fossil is 62 million years old, one of the study’s co-authors, Daniel Ksepka, noted. Penguins were already flightless at this point, he told Live Science, but they looked very different to what modern humans know to be penguins.
Ancient penguins had longer legs and beaks, and their wings still appeared to be more traditionally bird-like rather than the flipper-like wings we see today, Ksepka noted to the outlet. “These early ones are probably evolving from a puffin-like animal that could still fly through the air,” he explained.
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Analysis suggested penguins originated somewhere near what is known today as New Zealand, before spreading out to South America and Antarctica, Live Science continued. Their movements around the globe were likely helped by natural glacial and interglacial periods, the researchers hypothesized, according to the outlet.
There are 18 species of penguin alive today, according to BirdLife International. All of said species reside almost fully in the southern hemisphere, the site noted. (RELATED: Mummified Wolf Pup Unearthed In Adorable Condition)
Despite their rapid evolution, penguins are evolutionarily slower compared to other bird species, the researchers argued. Roughly 75% of all the penguin species that modern science had uncovered have already gone extinct, Ksepka said, according to Live Science.