For years, scientists believed penguins originated in Antarctica. But new study shows that the animals first evolved in Australia and New Zealand.
University of California, Berkeley researchers conducted their study in collaboration with several museums and universities around the world. They analyzed blood and tissue samples from 18 different species of penguins to trace their movement and diversification over millennia.
“Our results indicate that the penguin crown-group originated during the Miocene (geological period) in New Zealand and Australia, not in Antarctica as previously thought,” the researchers said in a statement about their study, which was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Penguins first occupied temperate environments and then radiated to cold Antarctic waters.”
Research suggests penguins originated in Australia and New Zealand 22 million years ago. Ancestors of the king and emperor penguins then moved to Antarctic waters, likely because of the abundance of food supply there.
About 12 million years ago, penguins managed to swim throughout the Southern Ocean after the Drake Passage, the body of water between Antarctica and southern tip of South America, opened up. This also allowed the penguins to spread to sub-Antarctic Islands and warmer coastal regions of South America and Africa.
The flightless birds can now still be found in Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, South America, South Atlantic, Southern Africa, sub-Antarctic, Indian Ocean islands, and other subtropical regions.
The study also allowed researchers to understand the penguin’s capability to adapt to changing climates.
“We are able to show how penguins have been able to diversify to occupy the incredibly different thermal environments they live in today, going from 9 degrees Celcius (48 Fahrenheit) in the waters around Australia and New Zealand, down to negative temperatures in Antarctica and up to 26 degrees (79 Fahrenheit) in the Galapagos Islands,” Rauri Bowie, one of the lead researchers and professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, said in a statement from the university.
“But we want to make the point that it has taken millions of years for penguins to be able to occupy such diverse habitats, and at the rate that oceans are warming, penguins are not going to be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with changing climate,” he added.
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