DNA tests show ‘extinct’ species of penguins that never existed

Science is a process of self-correction, which is always ongoing. Accepted hypotheses crumble in the face of new information. The world is not flat after all. The disease is not caused by demons or wickedness. And that penguin from Hunter Island? Yes, obviously it was just a figment of our imagination. Researchers write in Linnean Society Zoological Journal they say that the remains of one presumed species are actually a “mixed mixture” of bones of three existing species.

The bones were discovered in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric pile of garbage on Hunter Island in Tasmania. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor claimed that the remains were different enough from other penguins to be able to create their own genus and species, one of which became extinct during the Holocene era. Proud potential parents of the penguin called it an apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was it.

Except this is a science, in which no story is actually ever finished. Other biologists were not happy with the evidence presented by Tets and O’Connor. There were only four bones and they all bore a resemblance to the species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we have ways to get fossils to speak. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used a DNA bar code to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct’ penguin isn’t really an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

The bones were “a mixed mixture of three live penguin species, of two genera”: the cross penguin from Fiordland or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Crested Penguin Snares (Eudyptes robustus), from New Zealand and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us exclude previously postulated species that did not exist, as in this case.”