The finding suggests that primates made migration from South to North America 21 million years ago, far earlier than previously thought.
Researchers have recovered 21-million-year old monkey fossil remains in the Panama Canal Basin. The fossil remains consist of seven teeth and belonged to a previously unknown species, Panamacebus transitus that lived during the early Miocene epoch. This is the oldest known evidence of monkey species in North America and it has also turned the preexisting theory about the monkey’s arrival in North America upside down.
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It has been long thought that the monkey first ventured from South America to North America no earlier than 4 million years ago when two continents merged. But latest research suggests that these primates reached the North American continent far earlier than originally thought. They accomplished the astonishing feat of crossing at least 100 miles of open ocean 21 million years ago when the two continents were divided by the water.
Scientists are not sure how ‘New World' monkeys exactly got here. They may have swum through, but covering such a huge distance is a daunting task for even the exceptional long-distance swimmers. It is highly likely that they reached the continent by rafting on vegetation.
“Somehow they made a transoceanic journey from Africa, then they dispersed throughout South America. Now we see that they, as far as we know, are the only mammal that successfully crossed the early Miocene Central American Seaway into present day Panama. So how were monkeys able to do this? Hopefully future fossil discoveries will help us better understand this extraordinary history.” Jonathan Bloch, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at Florida Museum of Natural History said.
P. transitus looked a lot like a capuchin, also known as organ-grinder monkeys and squirrel monkeys that are found in Central and South America today. The monumental migration taking place 21 million years ago raises questions about the spread of primates across America which has been a hotly debated issue for many years.
The latest research suggests that modern monkey emerged from ancient tropics. New World monkeys are now limited to tropical forests of Brazil and Mexico, but during the early Miocene they were found throughout South America even at continent’s high latitudes. But experts argue why these monkeys are not found farther north once they crossed the seaway into Panama.
Co-author Aaron Wood says. “The ancient South American-derived forests found in Panama were absent in northern Central America at the time, preventing monkeys from moving north, even though climate and geographic barriers like oceans did not wholly restrict their northward movements.”
Researchers are hoping to find more monkey fossils so they can fill the gaps in the evolution of American primates.