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03/27/2013

Discovered: Africa’s oldest penguins

Penguin
Penguins at South Africa's southern coast. (Emily Mathieu/Toronto Star)

It’s the last place you would expect to see penguins but one species of the beautiful birds with a funny waddle lives on Africa’s southern coast.

Now, recently-discovered fossils indicate at least four species thrived in the continent in the past, says a study in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The fossils are from 10 million to 12 million years ago.

Researchers were studying rock sediments near a steel plant in Cape Town, South Africa, when they discovered the assortment of fossils, including 17 pieces that turned out to be backbones, breastbones, legs and wings from the ancient penguins.

Why penguins perished in Africa is still not clear but it could be because changing sea levels purged their nests, say scientists.

Five million years ago, sea levels were 90 metres higher than they are now, and  low-lying South Africa became a patchwork of islands. Those islands provided beaches for several penguin species to create nests and rear their young while sheltering them from predators.

Once the ocean levels fell, most beaches became mainland.

The one penguin species that lives in Africa today is the endangered black-footed penguin, known for their donkey-like calls.

Raveena Aulakh is the Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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