The remains of the first known monkey in North America were recently unearthed in the southernmost point of the continent, Panama, according to a new study.
The discovery suggests that the monkey, which would have looked like a modern capuchin, managed to travel across 100 miles of water dividing North America from South America 21 million years ago. The findings are published in the journal Nature.
Co-author Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus, said the discovery adds a new chapter to the "utterly bizarre" history of New World monkeys.
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"Somehow they made a transoceanic journey from Africa, then they dispersed throughout South America," Bloch said in a press release. "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."
He and his colleagues say that the monkey might have swum across the ancient sea, but this would have required covering a distance of more than 100 miles, a difficult feat for even the most talented long-distance swimmers.
They believe the monkey is more likely to have unintentionally rafted across on mats of vegetation, much like its earlier ancestors likely did when they made their way from Africa to South America.
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The fossils of the pioneering North American monkey reveal the similarity to today's capuchins. Bloch and his team found the fossils during recent excavations related to the expansion of the Panama Canal.
The monkey was not the only animal to make the journey from South America to North America. Fossils of other species from the same time period were also found near the monkey's remains.
Now a question is: once the monkey and others of its kind made it to Panama, why didn't they travel long distances northward?
"While the fossil mammals found with the monkey include horses, camels and squirrels that look like what paleontologists have found in the early Miocene of Mexico, Texas and Florida, the new monkey was limited to the southernmost point of the continent," co-author Aaron Wood said.
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He added, "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."
Bloch suggested that maybe acorns in the northern forests just weren't particularly tasty to a South American monkey used to eating tropical fruit.
The same dense jungles that offer monkeys such fruits as well as habitats also make it difficult for researchers now to hunt for fossils.
Nevertheless, Bloch said, "We hope to find more monkey fossils, but time is definitely a factor."
"We're fighting against the forest that wants to grow over the rocks again," he continued. "The expansion of the Panama Canal provides a once-in-a-century opportunity for these kinds of exciting discoveries. But we can't assume we'll always be able access these rock exposures."