March of the Desert Penguins

THE LIFE OF THE arctic penguin has been well represented in films and documentaries in recent years as 4-foot tall emperor penguins have marched across our movie screens. Now new research shows that the ancestors of these modern-day giants, were larger, sturdier and lived in the deserts of Peru during one of the warmest periods on Earth—some 36 to 42 million years ago. A team of scientists from the U.S., Peru, and Argentina has found two new species of penguins that are challenging accepted theories of penguin evolution and migration.

Peruvian paleontologist Mario Urbina-Schmitt of the Museo de Historia Natural de San Marcos in Lima, who has logged more than 20 years of fieldwork in Peru, helped to locate the fossils. Unexplored areas can lead to exciting discoveries like the new species of giant penguin named Icadyptes salasi, the third largest penguin known to science. With a beak that measures more than two times the length of its skull, Icadyptes had the longest beak of any penguin in the world. A true giant, this magnificent bird stood about 5 feet tall, was sturdy in constitution and waddled about the deserts of Peru about 36 million years ago. The researchers also found a second, much older fossil from a 42-million-year-old deposit. The earlier penguin, Perudyptes devriesi, was three feet tall, which is comparable in size to today’s second largest living penguin, the King Penguin.

Excavations in Peru also produced the first complete sample of a giant penguin skull. “We really only had ideas about what the skulls of these animals looked like,” says North Carolina State University Assistant Professor Julia Clarke, one of the lead scientists who analyzed the remains. “[The skull] is quite different from any living penguin,” she explains. With an actual skull to examine, scientists can more accurately determine what some of the earliest penguins looked like. Although both of the new species had longer and more pointed beaks than today’s birds, the giant penguin had a super-sized beak that is longer than any beak found in any living or extinct penguin. The super-sized beak had a sharp, spear-like point at the end that scientists suggest was used as a weapon to catch fish. To support this massive beak, the penguin’s neck was thick and muscular.

The age of these new fossils pushes back the date of penguin migration from southern latitudes to low latitudes millions of years earlier than previous data had indicated.  Scientists have long believed that penguins migrated to northern South America during a cold era, between four and eight million years ago, but these new fossils hail from a warm period more than 30 million years earlier. Penguin researchers were quite surprised to find penguins living in the tropics during a time period when the earth was even warmer than it is today. “We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species, even the small penguins in equatorial regions today,” says Clarke, “but the new fossils date back to one of the warmest periods in the last 65 million years of Earth’s history. The evidence indicates that penguins reached low latitude regions more than 30 million years prior to our previous estimates.”

Clarke warns that although penguins might have started out living in warm climates, today’s penguins are cold adapted and sensitive to climate change. “These Peruvian species are early branches off the penguin family tree, that are comparatively distant cousins of living penguins,” she explains. “The data from these new fossil species cannot be used to argue that warming wouldn’t negatively impact living penguins.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


The Devil Gardener

DEEP IN the Peruvian Amazon a mystery tantalizes travelers and locals alike: Who fashions the random forest clearings in which only one species of tree grows and little jungle debris litters the forest floor? Local people believe that an evil forest spirit called the Chuyachaqui creates these clearings. The Chuyachaqui  is also said to change his appearance to confuse people and lose them in the forest.

Stanford University biologist Megan Frederickson believes that ants — not evil spirits — create these gardens. “A Devil’s garden is a lot like a grove or an orchard and so it has the feel to it like something that has been planted by people,” Frederickson says.

Her research at the Madre Selva Biological Station in Loreto Peru has revealed that a species of ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, is responsible for these mysterious clearings. Because these ants nest and rear their young in only the lemon ant tree, Duroia hirsute, they have developed a gardening “technique” to remove all surrounding vegetation and only allow new lemon ant trees to thrive.

Frederickson and her field assistant, Antonio Coral, observed that worker ants chew holes in the leaves of all the plants they don’t want near their host tree. The ants stick their abdomens in the holes and secrete a few drops of formic acid to kill the unwanted plants, creating space for more lemon ant trees. The untreated saplings began to die within 24 hours, proving it wasn’t the lemon ant tree that was responsible.

With data from a two-year rainforest census, Frederickson and her team calculated that the gardens expand about 7 percent each year. They estimate that the largest garden in their study is 807 years old. That garden measures 1,300 square meters and houses 3 million worker ants and 15,000 queens. With that much competition, the Chuyachaqui may have to go to the devil and live somewhere else.

Published in Wildlife Conservation magazine by Chris Hardman


Trophy Heads: Understanding the Nasca

AN EXPANSIVE collection of skulls from defeated enemies symbolized power in many early societies. The Jivaro tribe in the Amazon would remove skulls and shrink soft tissue to make “shrunken heads.”

The Munduruchu of Brazil decapitated fallen enemies and elaborately prepared the heads for display.

But the skulls collected 2,000 to 1,500 years ago by the Nasca civilization on the coast of Peru may have served a different purpose; scientists believe that figuring out that purpose could be important to understanding how civilization progressed in South America.

Originally discovered by the late Alfred Louis Kroeber—an American anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley—the heads were collected from the Nazca Valley on the arid coast of southern Peru during expeditions in 1925 and 1926.

The heads were well preserved due to the area’s dry climate—they even retained traces of soft-tissue and hair. For the past 80 years the heads have been stored at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Scientists call the heads “trophy heads” because the heads have a hole in the front of them so that they can be hung from cords. Although portrayals of trophy heads were common in pre-Colombian ceramics, textiles and sculpture, the actual heads are hard to come by. Excavations in Peru have yielded only 150 of these heads so far.

Due to the lack of physical evidence, researchers look to pottery for clues as to the purpose of these heads. “Illustrations on some pots depict warriors and trophy heads,” says Patrick Ryan Williams, Associate Curator of Archaeological Science at the Field Museum in Chicago. “But there are also scenes that link trophy heads to agricultural fertility. Mythical creatures depicted on some pots carry trophy heads as well.”


A 2001 study led by Professor Sloan R. Williams of the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that most of the 18 trophy heads housed at the Field Museum came from males between the ages of 18-25. Although that demographic suggests that the heads belonged to warriors, there were heads from women and children as well.

“As of 2001 we thought they were warriors,” says Ryan Williams. “That’s why this [recent] analysis we undertook was so critical to address this question: were these heads warriors?”

Researchers theorized that if the heads were trophies from war, they would have come from people who lived outside of Nasca territory.

In the 2008 study, led by Professor Kelly J. Knudson from Arizona State University, researchers compared samples of tooth enamel from 16 heads with the skeletons of 13 mummified bodies from the Nazca area.

By comparing the signatures of different forms of strontium, oxygen and carbon, the researchers could determine whether the two groups lived in and ate the same food produced in the same area.

“You are what you eat,” said Williams, “and the elements you consume become a part of your bones’ chemical signature.”

Because the comparison showed that the trophy heads came from the same population as the people who collected the heads, researchers believe that the heads did not come from expansionary warfare and were collected for some other purpose.

“For the Nasca, these heads could have a very different meaning. We need to keep in mind that heads turned into trophies may represent violence but, they may represent something else,” Williams says. “They me be a way to honor someone.”

Williams believes that understanding the Nasca culture is especially important because they were the predecessor to the Wari—one of the area’s most influential societies in South America who predated the Inca by 4 centuries.

“This small scale agrarian society was succeeded by an empire with regional authority,” Williams said. “For the first time people were governed by others who lived hundreds of miles distant. Understanding how this came about may help us better understand how these forms of government first emerged.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman

The Staff God: An Ancient Mystery

IN 2003 RESEARCHERS in Peru’s Patavilca River Valley uncovered a 4,000 year-old-gourd fragment that appears to be the oldest identifiable religious icon in the Americas. The fragment bears the image of the Staff God, which was the main religious figure in South America until the Europeans arrived in 1532. Radiocarbon dating of the gourd to 2250 B.C. suggests that organized religion began in the Americas some 1,000 years earlier than previously determined.

Members of the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico — Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago, Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University, and Peruvian archaeologist Alvaro Ruiz — discovered the icon while they were collecting artifacts at a looted burial ground along the coast of Peru.

peru 1
Photo by Jonathan Hass, Courtesy of The Field Museum

“We did some surface collection and found this gourd fragment,” Haas said. “We looked at it and everybody’s jaw dropped and we said, ‘This has all the characteristics of the Staff God.’ ”

The drawing’s simplicity hinted at its age, and radiocarbon dating proved that this was the oldest image of the Staff God any researcher has uncovered so far. The team found a similar image also painted on a gourd at a nearby cemetery.

Worshiped as the creator, the Staff God appears in temples and artifacts throughout Andean cultures spanning thousands of years. The Staff God is recognizable by its fangs, splayed feet, and snake iconography. It is usually drawn with a staff in one or both of its hands and with snakes on a belt, on its hands, or coming out of its head.

The icon Haas and his team found has splayed feet, a fanged mouth, and holds a staff. The left hand is curved in the form of a snake.

“The Staff God undergoes change and evolution over the course of  2,000 to 3,000 years. It emerges during the Inca time as the Creator God,” Haas explained.

staff god
Drawing by Jill Seagard, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Haas and his colleagues were working 120 miles north of Lima in the Norte Chico region of the Peruvian Coast. The region’s four coastal valleys were densely populated between 2600 B.C. and 2000 B.C.

“To date, 26 major centers have been recorded in the Norte Chico region, all with monumental architecture, large-scale ceremonial structures, and complex residential and administrative architecture,” Winifred Creamer said. “It is a truly unique concentration of settlements anywhere in the Americas.”

In 2001, Creamer and Haas’ research team determined that around 2600 B.C. ancient Peruvians were building a complex city with pyramids at around the same time as the ancient Egyptians built their cities and pyramids.

Haas suggests that the Norte Chico region is the cradle of Andean civilization. The area would eventually give rise to the Inca empire, who during the height of their reign in the 1500s, ruled the largest empire on Earth.

The 2003 artifact pushes back the starting point for Andean religion and civilization and shows the Staff God at its most basic representation.

“What we’re seeing with Andean religion is although it has many different forms throughout its lifetime, it has a central core to it and that central core is arising in the 3rd millennium B.C.,” Haas said.

Published in Americas Americas magazine, July-August 2003, by Chris Hardman