Only one penguin species lives in Africa today — the endangered black-footed penguin, or Spheniscus demersus. But newly found fossils confirm that as many as four penguin species coexisted on the continent in the past. (Credit: Photo by Daniel Thomas)

Mar. 26, 2013 — Africa isn't the kind of place you might expect to find penguins. But one species lives along Africa's southern coast today, and newly found fossils confirm that as many as four penguin species coexisted on the continent in the past. Exactly why African penguin diversity plummeted to the one species that lives there today is still a mystery, but changing sea levels may be to blame, the researchers say.

The fossil findings, described in the March 26 issue of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, represent the oldest evidence of these iconic tuxedo-clad seabirds in Africa, predating previously described fossils by 5 to 7 million years.

Co-authors Daniel Thomas of the National Museum of Natural History and Dan Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center happened upon the 10-12 million year old specimens in late 2010, while sifting through rock and sediment excavated from an industrial steel plant near Cape Town, South Africa.

Jumbled together with shark teeth and other fossils were 17 bone fragments that the researchers recognized as pieces of backbones, breastbones, wings and legs from several extinct species of penguins.

Based on their bones, these species spanned nearly the full size spectrum for penguins living today, ranging from a runty pint-sized penguin that stood just about a foot tall (0.3 m), to a towering species closer to three feet (0.9 m).

Only one penguin species lives in Africa today — the black-footed penguin, or Spheniscus demersus, also known as the jackass penguin for its loud donkey-like braying call. Exactly when penguin diversity in Africa started to plummet, and why, is still unclear.

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