local fossils

Fossils have been extracted and examined by scientists to help understand the origins of modern species.

Other important fossils now bear names from the local area. “In situ” fossils – whales in the rock - can be seen at Anatini and Earthquakes. These are stunning unique geological sites that take the viewer's imagination back through deep time. 

Visit the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon to see casts of the local fossils and learn about them.

Waipatia dolphin - with shark-like teeth

Recovered in 1994 from the Otekaike Limestone in North Otago, Waipatia

maerewhenua would have occupied the seas that extensively (but not quite) covered

Zealandia during the Oligocene.

Dated as 24 - 25 million years old, the structure of the skull of Waipatia

maerewhenua indicates it may be related to modern day toothed whales, dolphins

and porpoises.

To date only one specimen of Waipatia maerewhenua has been found in North

Otago. The specimen you see in the Vanished World Centre is a cast taken from the original (which can be viewed at the Otago Museum).


Fordyce, R E ‘Waipatia maerewhenua – a small archaic dolphin from the Oligocene of New Zealand’, accessed 14 April 2020, <https://www.otago.ac.nz/geology/research/paleontology/waipatia-maerewhenua.html>

Kairuku giant penguin

Two species of giant Kairuku pengion fossils were discovered in the Kokooamu Greensand (a marine sediment found under the Otekaike Limestone) near here. Kairuku grebneffi was found near Duntroon and Kairuku waitaki was found near Waimate. 

Study suggests that these large, heavy penguins could swim into the deeper waters beyond the shallow seas of Zealandia in search of food - probably small fish and squid. 

Partial skeletons can be viewed at the Otago University Geology Department museum

Cast of fossil bones in limestone, belonging to the giant penguin 'Kairuku'

Fast  facts

  • The fossils are 26-27 million years old and would
    have been alive in the Oligocene period

  • Kairuku stood approximately 1.3m high and
    weighed 60kg or more!

  • The were similar to modern day Emperor penguins
    but had a longer bill, more slender body and longer
    more flexible wings

  • Kairuku is a Māori word loosely translated to "diver
    who returns with food"

  • The oldest penguin named so far is Waimanu,
    (also from New Zealand). It lived during the
    Plaeocene and early Eocene times (55-60+
    million years ago), not long after the extinction
    of dinosaurs


Fordyce, R E ‘Kairuku - a new "giant" Late Oligocene Penguin from New Zealand’, accessed 9 March 2020, <https://www.otago.ac.nz/geology/research/paleontology/otago067613.html>

kaiwhekea katiki Plesiosaur

In 1982 a plesiosaur fossil was recovered from sediments (called the Katiki Formation) near Matakaea Shag Point in Waitaki. It was named Kaiwhekea katiki by Prof. Arthur Cruickshank

and Prof. Ewan Fordyce in 2002. It is one of the largest and most complete fossil reptiles

ever found in New Zealand.

Studying of the fossil suggests Kaiwhekea katiki may have had binocular vision

(good depth perception), large and powerful jaw muscles, a diet of medium-sized

soft-bodied prey like squid and fish, a not very flexible neck (despite it being long),

and fast swimming ability.

You can view Kaiwhekea katiki at the Otago Museum in Dunedin.

Fast  facts

  • Plesiosaurs are not dinosaurs. The word plesiosaur is Greek for ‘nearer to the reptiles’.

  • This plesiosaur is the first described in NZ to include its skull, limbs and associated features (vertebrae and ribs)

  • The fossil is seven metres long

  • This plesiosaur was living during the Late Cretaceous time (approximately
    70 million years ago) – after New Zealand had separated from Gondwana and Waitaki was positioned close to the Antarctic Circle

  • It is thought plesiosaurs went extinct at the KT boundary – at the same time as the dinosaurs


Fordyce, R E ‘Kaiwhekea Katiki, a Late Cretaceous plesiousaur from high southern latitues’ p 1 – 2, accessed 19 February 2020, <https://www.otago.ac.nz/geology/research/paleontology/kaiwhekea-katiki.html>

Find Us On
  • Facebook
  • Instagram - White Circle
  • YouTube - White Circle
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Spotify
News &

"What a fantastic window into the past. Today we saw fossil bones in limestone at two different sites. One set were whale bones. Just awesome that this trail has been put together, maintained and promoted."

— Mark Shipman, 

Vanished World visitor