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Giant petrel fossil discovered at Taranaki

Giant petrel fossil skull, (holotype, NMNZ S.048502) of Macronectes tinae, in different views: (A) Dorsal (top) view. (B) Lateral (side) view (left), scale bar = 5 cm. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa.

Alan Tennyson and Rodrigo Salvador, Te Papa Blog, The first giant petrel fossils, 1 February 2023

In 2017, Taranaki collector Alastair Johnson found the fossil of a giant petrel. Initially, it was encased in rock but careful preparation revealed something stunning. Not only was it a complete skull but it was the first fossil ever found of an intriguing kind of seabird. Two years later, Alastair found part of a wing bone of a giant petrel too. Both fossils are 3 million years old. Vertebrate Curator Alan Tennyson and Research Fellow Rodrigo Salvador describe the distinctions and fierce habits of giant petrels.

What kind of birds are giant petrels?

Giant petrels are very distinctive birds, being the size of small albatrosses, with huge bulbous beaks.

Artistic reconstruction of Macronectes tinae in its palaeoenvironment. Illustration by Simone Giovanardi. Te Papa (CC-BY 4.0).

They are famous for their habit of following ships and their outrageous scavenging activities – sometimes getting fully immersed in the carcass of some poor creature, ripping it apart and becoming covered in blood and other goo. While their taste may be questionable to us, they perform a useful role as marine cleaners.

Giant petrels feeding on a dead sea lion pup, Enderby Island, January 2018. Photo by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa
Giant petrels fighting, Kaikoura, June 2015. Photo by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa.
Giant petrel with chick, Antipodes Island, November 1995, Photo by Alan Tennyson.

We find them endearing birds, with their unique look and distinctive musty smell. In contrast to their brazen behaviour fighting over carrion, towards people on land they are timid and wary.

Like most kinds of petrels, they spend their lives roaming the oceans. For nesting, they maintain long-term partners, with which they share the duties of raising a single chick each year.

What can we learn from the fossils?

So what do the fossils tell us about the evolution of giant petrels? They reveal what we might have predicted, that is, ancestral giant petrels were smaller and had wing bones with features intermediate between living giant petrels and their closest relatives – the other much smaller fulmarine petrels.

Giant petrels surrounded by their smaller fulmarine relatives – Cape petrels, Kaikoura, Jun 2015. Photo by Alan Tennyson. Te Papa.

The fossil is named Macronectes tinae after Tina King – Alastair’s late wife, because the giant petrel skull was her favourite fossil.

Thanks very much to Alastair and John Buchanan-Brown for their expert fossil preparation skills and also Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine for their ongoing support of Te Papa’s work in their rohe.

Read the article

By Alan Tennyson and former Te Papa curator Rodrigo Salvador, the article describing the giant petrel fossils A New Giant Petrel (Macronectes, Aves: Procellariidae) from the Pliocene of Taranaki, New Zealand=–