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When we think of a penguin, we usually think of the iconic emperor penguin waddling to and fro on Antarctic sea ice. But there are at least 20 other species to consider, from squat little periwinkle birds called fairy penguins to the macaroni penguin, which got its name after 18th century English sailors thought its flashy orange crest fit in perfectly with a contemporary fashion trend called macaroni (it centered around flamboyance, androgyny, and XXL wigs that were quite extra, as one might say today, just like the penguin’s crest).
Suffice to say, penguins are one diverse group of birds. And now a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, is taking a crack at explaining how they came to be such an eclectic bunch. The study’s authors suggest that new island formation drove penguins to evolve and branch off into many of the football-shaped birds we know today.
Something - Years - Islands - Galapagos - Antipodes
They think it went something like this: over the last 5 million years or so, new islands sprouted up like the Galapagos and Antipodes formations. Groups of penguin ancestors occupied those landmasses and nested there for millions of years, isolated from other penguin populations. Over time, those groups may have evolved into distinctly different species.
This idea of island-powered evolution isn’t exactly a new one. In fact, Charles Darwin used the way Galapagos finches evolved between islands to define his entire theory of evolution.
Penguins - Scientists - Currents - Populations - Birds
But in penguins, scientists have typically thought that ocean currents separated populations, because both the birds and their food sources wouldn’t want to occupy waters that were too hot or cold. That allowed them to evolve in different directions. Plus, when Antarctica froze over about 30 million years ago, “that changed the entire ecosystem of the southern hemisphere,” says study author Theresa Cole, an evolutionary biologist and...
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