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NZ Penguin Extinction Dated to Polynesian Arrival

Carbon dating and DNA analysis of archaeological penguin remains have found that New Zealand’s waitaha penguin became extinct within 200 years of Polynesian settlement.

“Hunting and habitat change apparently caused the extinction of this unique mainland penguin, before the yellow-eyed penguin later arrived here from the subantarctic,” says Dr Nic Rawlence of The University of Otago. “Until now we really had no idea when one species went extinct and the other colonised.”

The new dating study, published in Quaternary Science Reviews, has shown that the waitaha penguin became extinct before 1500 AD – around the same time as the giant flightless moa. Intriguingly, the yellowed-eyed penguin then replaced the extinct penguin within just a few decades in the early 1500s.

“This very rapid biological shift implies a substantial change in human pressure around this time. Interestingly, recent archaeological studies similarly suggest that the Maori population in southern New Zealand declined around 1500 AD, and coincided with a major dietary shift,” says co-author A/Prof Ian Smith.

“This unique combination of factors seems to have allowed yellow-eyed penguins to establish the mainland populations we see today,” says project leader Prof Jon Waters.