A new study published in the Journal Nature, a team of researchers from Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) found the remains of an ancient species of monkeys known as Panamacebus transitus during recent excavations related to the expansion of the Panama Canal, founding that it was an early species from South America that migrated into North America using makeshift rafts some 21 million years ago.

How Panamacebus performed the feat is a bit mysterious. After all, seagoing simians seem somewhat suspicious. Credit: Japan Times

The fossils, seven little teeth, found during excavations of the pioneering North American monkey reveal the similarity to today’s capuchins.

Before this new study, it was believed that monkey ancestors migrated to North America from South America about 4 million years ago using the Isthmus of Panama, but a now, the study shows that monkeys had reached the North American continent far earlier than previously known. The studies also show that the monkeys accomplished crossing the astonishing feat of at least 100 miles (160 km) of the open ocean 21 million years ago, using makeshift rafts, to get from South America to North America before the two continents joined together.

“Panama represents the southernmost extreme of the North American continent at that time. It may have swum across, but this would have required covering a distance of more than 100 miles, a difficult feat for sure. It’s more likely that it unintentionally rafted across on mats of vegetation,” said Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus, and the lead author of the findings published in the journal Nature.

The fact that the monkeys may have swum across the ancient sea shows that this would have required covering a distance of more than 100 miles, which is a difficult amount of distance to swim. Bloch claims that vegetation may have helped the animal to cross the waters, having the theory that they used mats of vegetation to raft across the continents, like its earlier ancestors most likely did when they made their way from Africa to South America.

Paleontologist and biologist Siobhán Cooke of Northeastern Illinois University, even though she was not part of the new study, has supported Bloch’s theory, adding that other natural events like earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes could have helped the ancient monkeys as well.

“Monkeys are pretty good dispersers and some monkeys have made it to live on islands. It isn’t surprising that they were able to disperse to North America”, said Cooke.

Source: Nature