We present the first detailed description of Perudyptes devriesi, a basal penguin from the middle Eocene (~42 Ma) Paracas Formation of Peru, and a new analysis of all published extinct penguin species as well as controversial fragmentary specimens. The Perudyptes devriesi holotype includes key regions of the skull and significant postcranial material, thus helping to fill a major phylogenetic and stratigraphic (~20 million year) gap between the earliest fossil penguins (Waimanu manneringi and Waimanu tuatahi, ~58–61.6 Ma) and the next oldest partial skeletons. Perudyptes devriesi is diagnosable by five autapomorphies: (1) an anteroventrally directed postorbital process, (2) marked anterior expansion of the parasphenoid rostrum, (3) posterior trochlear ridge of the humerus projecting distal to the middle trochlear ridge and conformed as a large, broadly curved surface, (4) convex articular surface for the antitrochanter of the femur, and (5) extremely weak anterior projection of the lateral condyle of the tibiotarsus. The skull of Perudyptes is characterized by deep temporal fossae and an elongate, narrow beak that differs from other reported stem penguins in its short mandibular symphysis. The wing skeleton of Perudyptes preserves a combination of plesiomorphic features also observed in the basal penguin Waimanu and derived features shared with more crownward penguins. Features of the wing optimized as primitive for Sphenisciformes include retention of a discrete dorsal supracondylar tubercle on the humerus and presence of a modestly projected pisiform process on the carpometacarpus. Derived features present in Perudyptes and all more crownward penguins, but absent in Waimanu, include a more flattened humerus, development of a trochlea for the tendon of m. scapulotriceps at the distal end of the humerus, and bowing of the anterior face of the carpometacarpus.
A combined molecular and morphological dataset for Spheniciformes was expanded by adding 25 osteological and soft tissue characters as well as 11 taxa. In agreement with previous results, Perudyptes devriesi is identified as one of the most basal members of Sphenisciformes. This analysis also confirms the placement of the middle/late Miocene (~11–13 Ma) fossil Spheniscus muizoni as a member of the Spheniscus clade and places the late Miocene (~10 Ma) Madrynornis mirandus as sister taxon to extant Eudyptes. These two species, known from relatively complete partial skeletons, are the oldest crown clade penguin fossils and represent well-corroborated temporal calibration points for the Spheniscus-Eudyptula divergence and Megadyptes-Eudyptes divergence, respectively. Our results reaffirm that the Miocene penguin taxon Palaeospheniscus, recently proposed to represent a member of the crown radiation, belongs outside of the crown clade Spheniscidae.
The phylogenetic positions of small Eocene Antarctic penguin taxa (Delphinornis, Marambiornis, and Mesetaornis) recently proposed as possible direct ancestors to crown Spheniscidae were further evaluated using alternate coding strategies for incorporating scorings from isolated elements that preserve critical morphologies and are thought to represent these taxa, although they cannot yet be reliably assigned to individual species. Under all scoring regimes, Delphinornis, Marambiornis, and Mesetaornis were recovered as distantly related to Spheniscidae.
Using synapomorphies identified in the primary analysis, we evaluated the phylogenetic position of fragmentary specimens, including the holotypes of valid but poorly known species, specimens currently unassignable to the species level, and morphologically distinct specimens that have not yet been named. All pre-Miocene specimens can be excluded from Spheniscidae based on presence of plesiomorphies lost in all crown penguins, consistent with a recent radiation for the penguin crown clade. This study provides additional support for a scenario of penguin evolution characterized by an origin of flightlessness near the K-T boundary, dispersal throughout the Southern Hemisphere during the early Paleogene, and a late Cenozoic origin for the crown clade Spheniscidae. Stratigraphic distribution and phylogenetic relationships of fossil penguins are consistent with distinct radiations during the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene. While the Eocene and Oligocene penguin faunas are similar in many respects, the Miocene fauna is characterized by smaller average size and novel cranial morphologies, suggesting that an ecological shift in diet occurred close to the origin of crown Spheniscidae.