Three new fossils of extinct creatures have been discovered during the widening of the Panama Canal including two crocodile-like reptiles and a large, aquatic mammal related to the modern hippos, according to Danielle Torrent at the University of Florida. Alex Hasting, lead researcher of the crocodilian study, said the project was made possible by a partnership, which allowed paleontologists to dig in the area while the construction on the canal is underway.
“We’re getting to sample these areas that are completely unsampled,” Hastings said. The Panama Canal is an important man-made shipping channel that allows ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean without going all the way around the continent of South America, which would add 8,000 miles to the journey and greatly drive up shipping costs.
The canal cuts across the isthmus of Panama, a small finger of land which currently joins North and South America. Howard Falcon-Lang, reporting for the BBC, explained that the two continents didn’t meet until roughly 3 million years ago. Dr. Camilo Montes, a geologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, told the BBC that the recent improvements on the Panama Canal represented “a once-in-a-century chance to find out what really happened when the Americas collided.”
The new fossils announced this week date back to a time before the continents had yet joined up and were separated by ocean. They are expected to shed new light on how large animals migrated to take advantage of new land and the changing ocean currents.
The new crocodilian fossils are particularly exciting because of the hints they offered about how caimans and alligators may have evolved in the new world. Hastings described the more primitive species, Culebrasuchus mesoamericanus, as a “mix [of] an alligator and one of the more primitive caimans and you end up with this caiman that has a much flatter snout, making it more like an alligator.”
The new mammal species, Arretotherium meridionale, is a cow-sized creature that lived in a semi-aquatic habitat, according to the lead researcher on that project, Aldo Rincon. It may be related to modern whales.
Falcon-Lang pointed out that Rincon is a top fossil hunter with keen eyes who has already made some important finds in the area, including the 17 million year old bones of ancient horses, rhinoceros, and camels from North America that entered the Central American region much earlier than scientists had previously believed.
The finds were described this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Because the digging on the Panama canal project will continue through 2014, even more new fossil finds may be coming up soon.
[crocodile photo by “Ciamabue” and Flickr]