Enormous ancient penguin found by Hamilton kids turns out to be a whole new species, 'waewaeroa'

Move over, moa - Aotearoa officially has a new giant extinct bird.

Remains of an enormous bird found by Hamilton schoolkids on a fossil-hunting trip to Kawhia Harbour in 2006 have turned out to be an entirely new species of giant penguin.

Waewaeroa - Māori for 'long legs' - is similar to another big penguin found in Otago in 2012, but it has much longer legs. 

"These longer legs would have made the penguin much taller than other Kairuku while it was walking on land, perhaps around 1.4 metres tall, and may have influenced how fast it could swim or how deep it could dive," said Daniel Thomas, zoology lecturer from Massey University, who was involved in the research.

Massey scientists teamed up with experts from the US to examine the fossil, which literally washed up on the beach after a storm right before kids from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club showed up to look for fossils. 

"It was kind of a small remnant that could have been a piece of seaweed when the kids first walked across it, but… on closer inspection we would see it was bones of some sort," Dave Matthews told The AM Show on Friday.

Matthews is a supervisor at the club, and said he never expected the kids to discover an entirely new species on one of their regular trips. 

"There was a lot of excitement. We realised it was something significant and our great leader Chris Templar was summoned - he was far up the beach and he was summoned back - and as soon as he saw it he realised it was something very, very significant and he said, 'Woah! What have we got here?' ...

"We expected to find something, but not necessarily something significant... what we were expecting to find was probably shark teeth."

Recognising its importance, the club decided to recover the fossil and donate it to Waikato Museum for safekeeping. It's taken years of painstaking analysis using 3D scanning to confirm waewaeroa was distinct from other species of giant penguin that roamed the Earth long before humans - between 27 and 34 million years ago. 

"It was a big chook," said Matthews. "If you think about how feisty a little blue penguin is - they'll draw blood on your hand - I could imagine this could have been quite a formidable bird." 

Waewaeroa - Māori for 'long legs'.
Waewaeroa - Māori for 'long legs'. Photo credit: Simone Giovanardi/supplied

Mike Safey, president of the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club, said the kids will remember finding the fossil for the rest of their lives.

"We always encourage young people to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. There's plenty of cool stuff out there just waiting to be discovered."

Matthews said many of the kids there that day went onto careers in conservation - including his own daughter. 

"This was something really, really, really special."

The research was published on Friday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.