Sanne Boessenkool uses an acrylamide gel, which separates
DNA fragments, in her work on yellow-eyed penguin genetics
at a University of Otago laboratory earlier this year.
Photo by Jane Dawber.
A previously unknown penguin species roamed South Island
shores until a few hundred years ago, DNA from prehistoric
bones has shown.
University of Otago researchers, led by Otago zoology PhD
student Sanne Boessenkool, were investigating changes in the
threatened yellow-eyed penguin population since human
While using a combination of traditional techniques and DNA
from prehistoric bones, they were surprised to find an
entirely new penguin species. The so-called "Waitaha" penguin
was estimated to have become extinct between AD1300 and
AD1500, soon after Polynesian settlement, Sanne Boessenkool
The penguin's extinction, combined with Maori cultural shifts
and changes in predator populations, created an opportunity
for the now highly-endangered yellow-eyed penguin to colonise
the mainland about 500 years ago, she said.
"We found the extinct species was closely related to the
yellow-eyed penguin, which is now assumed to be a relatively
recent arrival from the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell
The team's findings demonstrated that the yellow-eyed penguin
was not a declining remnant of a previous abundant
"Competition between the two species may have previously
prevented the yellow-eyed penguin from expanding northwards,
but environmental changes in the predator population, such as
the severe decline in sea lions, might have facilitated their
colonisation in the South Island," she said.
The research also involved the University of Adelaide and
Canterbury Museum, and was supervised by University of Otago
Associate Profs Jon Waters and Phil Seddon.
Dr Waters said it was a fascinating discovery and could mean
a reassessment of other species, especially from the South
Island, was needed.
"The ancient DNA approach used in this penguin study is
enormously powerful, as it provides a direct means of
characterising historical biodiversity.
"When coupled with more traditional techniques, this method
has potential to revolutionise our understanding of the
While it was a tragedy the Waitaha penguin, named for an
historical northern South Island iwi, had become extinct, it
showed how nature could respond to the conditions.
The yellow-eyed penguin was considered one of the world's
rarest penguin species and was the focus of an extensive
Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust field manager Dave McFarlane said
the research was very exciting, but did not mean any changes
in the trust's conservation efforts.
"This informs us and gives us a greater understanding of its
origins, and we look forward to finding out more detail about
its current relationship with the subantarctic populations,"
The researchers' findings have been published in the
international research journal Proceedings of the Royal
Society B: Biological Sciences.