Kumimanu fordycei: The Giant Penguins of the Paleocene Epoch

Guest “Scale and Context” by David Middleton

Figure 1. Cenozoic Era geologic time scale. (ICS)

If Global Warming Is Bad for Penguins, Why Were There Giant Penguins During the Paleocene?

FEBRUARY 9, 2023

Fossil bones from the largest penguin that ever lived unearthed in New Zealand
by Sarah Collins, University of Cambridge

Fossil bones from two newly described penguin species, one of them thought to be the largest penguin to ever live—weighing more than 150 kilograms, more than three times the size of the largest living penguins—have been unearthed in New Zealand.

An international team, including researchers from the University of Cambridge, reported the discovery in the Journal of Paleontology. The paper’s senior author, Alan Tennyson from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, discovered the fossils in 57 million-year-old beach boulders in North Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island, between 2016 and 2017.


“Fossils provide us with evidence of the history of life, and sometimes that evidence is truly surprising,” said co-author Dr. Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Many early fossil penguins attained enormous sizes, easily dwarfing the largest penguins alive today. Our new species, Kumimanu fordycei, is the largest fossil penguin ever discovered—at approximately 350 pounds, it would have weighed more than [basketball player] Shaquille O’Neal at the peak of his dominance!”



The paper is pay-walled. However, it’s fairly certain that these are fossils of Shaq-sized penguins (Shaquins) that lived approximately 57 million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch.

Paleocene Temperature and CO2

The Shaquins thrived when the average surface temperature of the Earth was likely 4-6 °C warmer than today, with atmospheric CO2 concentrations anywhere from 400 to 3,500 ppmv.

Older is toward the left on the following graph:

Figure 2a. Marine pCO2 (foram boron δ11B, alkenone δ13C), atmospheric CO2 from plant stomata (green and yellow diamonds with red outlines), Mauna Loa instrumental CO2 (thick red line) and Cenozoic temperature change from benthic foram δ18O (light gray line).
Figure 2b. Legend for Figure 2a.

Paleocene/Eocene Ice… Or lack thereof

We’ve been bombarded with claims that global warming and declining sea ice will drive the largest extant penguins to extinction.

Antarctica’s emperor penguins at risk of extinction due to the climate crisis

By Ashley Strickland, CNN
Published 9:16 AM EDT, Sat October 29, 2022

CNN — 

As Antarctica’s emperor penguins are increasingly threatened by the climate crisis, the flightless seabirds will receive new protections under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

With global warming melting the sea ice the penguins depend on for their survival, the US Fish and Wildlife Service now categorizes the species as threatened. The federal agency lists “imperiled species as endangered or threatened regardless of their country of origin.”


If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rates, leading to warming temperatures and melting Antarctic sea ice, 98% of the emperor penguin population could all but disappear by 2100, according to a study published last year in the journal Global Change Biology.

“The world needs to take aggressive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, and the Paris Climate Agreement objectives must be met, to help prevent further population declines,” Jenouvrier said.



Right… Modern penguins will be driven to extinction by RCP8.5 and melting ice… While the largest species of extinct penguins thrived in a world that was largely devoid of year-round ice cover.

Older is toward the right on the following graph:

Figure 3.  High latitude SST (°C) From benthic foram δ18O.  Funny how the PETM is often cited as a nightmarish version of a real-world RCP8.5… While the warmer EECO is a climatic optimum. (Zachos et al., 2001). Note: Older is to the right.

Shaquins thrived 15-20 million years prior to the establishment of the Antarctic ice sheet, at a time when year-round ice was pretty well limited to very high altitudes and sea ice (to the extent it existed) would have been seasonal.

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”

Penguins clearly evolved in a much warmer world, largely devoid of year-round ice and adapted to a much colder world with year-round icecaps and sea ice. They adapted to Late Pleistocene glacial and interglacial stages… But they can’t walk away from this?

Figure 4. High latitude SST (°C) From benthic foram δ18O (Zachos, et al., 2001) and HadSST3 (Hadley Centre / UEA CRU via http://www.woodfortrees.org) plotted at same scale, tied at 1950 AD.  Note: older is to the left.

The modern ~1 °C rise since pre-industrial times doesn’t even break out of the Quaternary Period noise level. Another 1 °C rise still won’t even break out of the Quaternary noise level, much less approach the warmth of the Paleocene. Bear in mind that the HadSST3 data are of much higher resolution than the δ18O time series.  The amplitude of the proxy time series on multi-decadal to centennial time-scales should be considered to be the minimum of the true variability on those time-scales, due to the much lower resolution than the instrumental data (Ljungqvist, F.C. 2010). 

Ponder this: Penguins first appear in the fossil record about 61 million years ago, barely 4 million years after the K-Pg extinction. They have thrived through much warmer and much colder climates of the Cenozoic Era, yet they are allegedly doomed by another 1 °C rise in temperature (1 °C is already “baked in”).

Penguins are one of the most iconic groups of birds, serving as both a textbook example of the evolution of secondarily aquatic ecology and as sentinels for the impacts of global change on ecosystem health1. Although often associated with Antarctica in the popular imagination, penguins originated more than 60 million years ago (Mya), evolving wing-propelled diving and losing the capacity for aerial flight long before the formation of polar ice sheets2. Over time, penguins evolved the suite of morphological, physiological, and behavioral features that make them arguably the most uniquely specialized of all extant birds. These adaptations have allowed penguins to colonize some of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Cole et al., 2022

The notion that penguins are seriously threatened by modern climate change strikes me as absurd. Although, I guess we can’t rule out the possibility that global warming may lead to the return of giant electric penguins…

( screaming )
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Scott of the Antarctic, 1970


Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. Scott of the Antarctic. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Season 2, Episode 10. 1970.

Cole, T.L., Zhou, C., Fang, M. et al. Genomic insights into the secondary aquatic transition of penguins. Nat Commun 13, 3912 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-31508-9

Jenouvrier, S., Che-Castaldo, J., Wolf, S., Holland, M., Labrousse, S., LaRue, M., Wienecke, B., Fretwell, P., Barbraud, C., Greenwald, N., Stroeve, J., & Trathan, P. N. (2021). The call of the emperor penguin: Legal responses to species threatened by climate change. Global Change Biology, 27, 5008– 5029.

Ksepka, D., Field, D., Heath, T., Pett, W., Thomas, D., Giovanardi, S., & Tennyson, A. (2023). Largest-known fossil penguin provides insight into the early evolution of sphenisciform body size and flipper anatomy. Journal of Paleontology, 1-20. doi:10.1017/jpa.2022.88

Ljungqvist, F.C. 2010. “A new reconstruction of temperature variability in the extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere during the last two millennia”. Geografiska Annaler: Physical Geography, Vol. 92 A(3), pp. 339-351, September 2010. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-459.2010.00399.x

Pagani, Mark, Michael Arthur & Katherine Freeman. (1999). “Miocene evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide”. Paleoceanography. 14. 273-292. 10.1029/1999PA900006.

Pearson, P. N. and Palmer, M. R.: Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 60 million years, Nature, 406, 695–699,https://doi.org/10.1038/35021000, 2000.

Royer, et al., 2001. Paleobotanical Evidence for Near Present-Day Levels of Atmospheric CO2 During Part of the Tertiary. Science 22 June 2001: 2310-2313. DOI:10.112

Steinthorsdottir, M., Vajda, V., Pole, M., and Holdgate, G., 2019, “Moderate levels of Eocene pCO2 indicated by Southern Hemisphere fossil plant stomata”: Geology, v. 47, p. 914–918, https://doi.org/10.1130/G46274.1

Zachos, J. C., Pagani, M., Sloan, L. C., Thomas, E. & Billups, K. “Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present”. Science 292, 686–-693 (2001).

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Tom Halla
February 13, 2023 2:24 pm

But, but, but, things are just absolutely perfect right now, and any change is automatically a Bad Thing! Who cares it was warmer in the past, and all those predicted disasters did not occur. It is doubleplus ungood crimethink to conclude otherwise.

Reply to  Tom Halla
February 13, 2023 3:42 pm

Nah, they were “just perfect” back around 1800 when CO2 was 280 ppm and it was 1°C colder than present. Back then we had a comfrotable life expectancy of 30-40 years. Now we have to suffer the ills of old age while everyone is starving, dying of heat exhaustion, or being washed away by the sea.

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  StuM
February 14, 2023 2:57 am

All 4 of my grandparents were born as peasants in Europe in the 1880s. One grandmother said she’d never go back because they worked every day of the year from dawn to dusk so she has no pleasant memories of “the good old days”- not to mention how horrible the boat ride was coming to America.

February 13, 2023 2:28 pm

How do the Galapagos and Port Fairy penguins in Australia, manage to survive without sea ice, or any ice?

Ron Long
Reply to  petroalbion
February 13, 2023 2:33 pm

And also how do the southern Argentina penguins survive without ever seeing ice? They are tourist attractions, and videos of Killer Whales (evolved from dolphins, that’s right, Flipper is a killer) crashing onto beaches to catch them are common. Never mind.

Reply to  Ron Long
February 13, 2023 5:08 pm

Taste like fishy duck, I bet.

Reply to  Scissor
February 13, 2023 5:54 pm

You mean like muttonbirds? 🙂

Reply to  StuM
February 13, 2023 6:54 pm

Yes, I imagine.

Ron Long
Reply to  Scissor
February 14, 2023 11:50 am

I’d rather eat road-kill skunk fried in motor oil.

Rud Istvan
February 13, 2023 2:39 pm

The penguins are thriving. The reason is anthropogenic. Chile is arguably overfishing the Antarctic toothfish (marketed as Chilean sea bass). The toothfish has the same primary diet as penguins—krill. So fewer toothfish mean more krill for penguins. And, both Adelie and Emperor penguins ‘nest’ on land, only using sea ice to waddle to the open ocean where the krill are. So less sea ice actually is helpful, not hurtful. Wrote about that in essay No Bodies in ebook Blowing Smoke.

Same bad distorted biology as polar bear fear mongering, who depend not at all on summer Arctic ice since most (70-80%) of their annual caloric intake is during the spring seal whelping season. Even Wadhams never claimed there would be no Arctic spring sea ice.

Frank from NoVA
February 13, 2023 3:12 pm

The reference to Shaquins is too funny! From the CNN article:

‘As Antarctica’s emperor penguins are increasingly threatened by the climate crisis, the flightless seabirds will receive new protections under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.’

I’m wondering what action the US would undertake in response to the ESA – would they close McMurdo Station in order not to burn 8 million gallons of diesel there each year?

Reply to  Frank from NoVA
February 14, 2023 9:25 am

They burn diesel?? They don’t use solar and wind generation??

Who goes there, Shirley not modern Scientists!

Smart Rock
February 13, 2023 3:33 pm

We live in a post-fact world. Only narrative matters now, and only one narrative is permitted to exist.

The 18th century Enlightenment (“The Age of Reason”) is over. It had a good run – over 250 years, and now it’s time for the 21st century Unenlightenment (“The Age of Propaganda”?) to define our relation to the natural world. A new dark age awaits us when the last light goes out.

February 13, 2023 3:45 pm

Who knew that higher temps are good for animal and plant life? Almost everyone, except for the climatists and their cult followers. And, actually, they know it too, it just doesn’t work for fear mongering.

abolition man
Reply to  guidvce4
February 13, 2023 8:52 pm

Climastrologists have many interesting religious beliefs. They apparently think that innumerable species migrate to polar regions in summer months, and that tropical seas are nearly devoid of life due to their higher temperatures!
Just wait until they start accusing climate realists of witchcraft as real temperatures reufuse to follow the Holy Climate Model of Mann! For reference, be sure to watch the “She’s a Witch!” Scene in Monte Python’s Holy Grail! Those could be early climate cultists in action!

Reply to  abolition man
February 14, 2023 9:27 am

Those could be early climate cultists in action!

Nope, just their “how to” guide.

February 13, 2023 4:26 pm

Wouldn’t it make more sense for northern hemisphere residents to go after their own problems than to worry about those things they really can’t do anything about?

February 13, 2023 5:43 pm

Took me a moment to finish the article as the whole “Shaquins” thing made me laugh so hard I could barely concentrate afterwards.

February 13, 2023 5:44 pm

As a general rule all biologists and biochemists know that within the temperature range between 0 and 100 deg C, the warmer the temp the higher the biochem reaction rate and therefore the greater the diversity of species, and the greater the biomass production.

Just ask yourself, which environment hosts the greatest number of species and supports the greatest density of biomass? The Arctic and Antarctic, which are mostly biological deserts … or the tropics and subtropics? As long as sufficient moisture is available, the tropics and subtropics are vastly more productive of living things than the polar regions. Followed by the temperate climate belts, with the polar regions bringing up the rear.

Last edited 3 months ago by Duane
Reply to  Duane
February 13, 2023 7:48 pm

More food in tropics, its that green stuff at the bottom of the food chain.

Water, carbon from the soil, sunlight and carbon from the air and its veritable smorgasbord to feed life

February 13, 2023 8:27 pm

“Global climate policy has the capacity to halt the future projected declines in empower penguins.” You don’t have to read any further than this. Global climate policies have worked so good that CO2 emissions have risen steadily since they were implemented. If I didn’t know better I would think those policies were put in place to increase CO2. What a knucklehead.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  Bob
February 14, 2023 7:18 am

Well, there’s that “capacity” thing again. Like the “capacity” of wind and solar electric generation, it doesn’t mean much.

If only everyone would just obey them – THAT is what they speak of when they twaddle on about what “global climate policy” *could* accomplish. Sort of like fantasizing about how much electricity “global” wind facilities *could* produce if they were all to be going at full capacity, simultaneously.

In other words, something that will never happen.

abolition man
February 13, 2023 8:40 pm

Verrrrry interesting, David!
But I think we’re overlooking the obvious question, which is: “Can Shaquins shoot free throws?” And if not, would their predators resort to hack-a-shaquin? I’m thinking Megalo don’t!!

February 13, 2023 9:32 pm

Clearly, the greens have woken up to the fact that polar bears are thriving.

February 13, 2023 11:21 pm

The fossil find is interesting for a number of reasons but qll life has some necessary environmental conditions. Even today’s humans, without our ability at making and using tools, would be limited to a significantly smaller portion of the earth than currently. The fact that some long extinct animal has some structural and genetic similarities to animals living today (were theses hefty beasties genetically similar to penguins?) does not mean that they could survive under the conditions of today’s animals or that today’s penguins could survive under conditions in which the old ones thrived.

Mike McMillan
February 14, 2023 12:16 am

It’s flat amazing that they can get pCO2 from 44 million year old alkenones.

Peta of Newark
February 14, 2023 12:53 am

The Paleocene was warm because there weren’t so many cold places (deserts) on this Earth.
Earth was lush, green and verdant everywhere that it could possibly be.
i.e. Water was abundant and everywhere.

The penguins shrank for the exact same reason American males shrank.
i.e. Abe Lincoln was 6ft and 4″ tall and was not a tall man amongst his peers. The average American male is now 5ft and 9″ tall ##

Temperature has sweet FA to do with it.
Soils erosion and shit food have everything to do with it

## The girls now average 5ft 3″.
This is why they are required to, told to, expected to, look weird if they don’t, wear high heeled shoes.
The shoes are there to try make the girls look like what they should look like = long legged and slim. Shit food makes them obese stunted dwarves.
It does their heads in too but they’re not alone in that.

Temperature and climate come out of it because deserts (places where shit food is to be found) have unique and special climates all of their own.
All their own work too.

Reply to  Peta of Newark
February 14, 2023 2:30 am

Gee, I hope you took plenty of photos on your excursion to the Paleocene.

Reply to  Peta of Newark
February 14, 2023 5:23 am

Humans were not taller 2 centuries ago….it is disinformation or misinformation to claim that was true.

Gunga Din
Reply to  Peta of Newark
February 15, 2023 6:34 am

i.e. Abe Lincoln was 6ft and 4″ tall and was not a tall man amongst his peers. The average American male is now 5ft and 9″ tall ##

comment image
(Lincoln must be the short guy on the far right.)

It doesnot add up
February 14, 2023 11:22 am

I wonder if advertisers would have come up with

Be picked up by a Penguin

If we still had Fordycei around. Perhaps they would be known as Ford ice? Or Four dice? Do you suppose they would have made Four candles from their blubber?

Reality is that the Antarctic climate appears to have been the most stable over the past 100 years.

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