Seven tiny teeth tell the story of an ancient monkey that made a 100-mile trek across the ocean between North and South America into modern-day Panama, the first fossil evidence for the existence of monkeys in North America.
The find provides the oldest fossil evidence for the interchange of mammals between South and North America and challenges long-held views of South America as an island continent that evolved in isolation before the Isthmus of Panama was formed and animals began crossing between the continents about 3.5 million years ago.
Scientists uncovered the teeth belonging to the 21-million-year-old primate during recent excavations related to the expansion of the Panama Canal. The new genus and species, dubbed Panamacebus transitus, received its name from the Latin word transit, meaning crossing.
It is somewhat of a mystery how P. transitus traveled across the sea dividing North and South America during the early Miocene. It may have swum across, but this would have required covering a distance of more than 100 miles, a difficult feat for even the most talented long-distance swimmers.
It’s more likely P. transitus unintentionally rafted across on mats of vegetation, much like their ancestors who probably made their way from Africa to the New World in a similar fashion.
The unearthing of P. transitus—which probably looked a lot like a capuchin or “organ grinder” monkey— adds a new chapter to the “utterly bizarre” history of New World monkeys, says Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Hopefully future fossil discoveries will help us better understand this extraordinary history.”
The ocean-faring monkey suggests the modern diversification of New World monkeys happened in the ancient tropics. The surprising discovery of the first fossil monkey from North America extends the record for the beginning of the modern diversification of New World monkeys by more than 5 million years, Bloch says.
New World Monkeys
It also provides fossil evidence for a pattern previously documented by molecular scientists who have suggested for some time that a variety of animals, including amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, and insects made ocean crossings between North and South America during the early Miocene.
New World monkeys today are restricted to tropical forests from Brazil to southern Mexico, but during the early Miocene they were found throughout South America, including some of the continent’s highest latitudes. The new primate raises the question of why these monkeys are not found farther north once they crossed the seaway into Panama, says coauthor Aaron Wood.
says Wood, who discovered the teeth as a postdoctoral researcher in 2012 and is now a paleontologist at Iowa State University.
Micro-CT scans of the fossil specimens are available for viewing in 3D or for 3D printing.
Top Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History