New Wonders Unearthed

All of the construction and earth moving for the Panama Canal expansion is providing a unique opportunity for scientists to gather information about the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and its role as the “Bridge of Life” for the Americas.

New Fossils of Crocodilian, Hippo-Like Species from Panama

University of Florida paleontologists have discovered remarkably well-preserved fossils of two crocodilians and a mammal previously unknown to science during recent Panama Canal excavations that began in 2009.

The two new ancient extinct alligator-like animals and an extinct hippo-like species inhabited Central America during the Miocene about 20 million years ago. The research expands the range of ancient animals in the subtropics — some of the most diverse areas today about which little is known historically because lush vegetation prevents paleontological excavations — and may be used to better understand how climate change affects species dispersal today . . .

The fossils shed new light on scientists’ understanding of species distribution because they represent a time before the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, when the continents of North and South America were separated by oceanic waters . . .

Researchers analyzed all known crocodilian fossils from the Panama Canal, including the oldest records of Central American caimans, which are cousins of alligators. The more primitive species, named Culebrasuchus mesoamericanus, may represent an evolutionary transition between caimans and alligators . . .

The new mammal species researchers described is an anthracothere, Arretotherium meridionale, an even-toed hooved mammal previously thought to be related to living hippos and intensively studied on the basis of its hypothetical relationship with whales. About the size of a cow, the mammal would have lived in a semi-aquatic environment in Central America, said lead author and UF graduate student Aldo Rincon.

“With the evolution of new terrestrial corridors like this peninsula connecting North America with Central America, this is one of the most amazing examples of the different kind of paths land animals can take,” Rincon said. “Somehow this anthracothere is similar to anthracotheres from other continents like northern Africa and northeastern Asia” . . .

Researchers will continue excavating deposits from the Panama Canal during construction to widen and straighten the channel and build new locks. [Science Daily]

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