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Planet Earth

Ancient Monkey Teeth Change Evolutionary Timeline

New research reveals a previously unknown monkey species.

By Gemma TarlachDecember 15, 2016 6:00 AM
Monkey Tooth
New research reveals a previously unknown monkey species, Panamacebus transitus, which arrived in North America from South America before the Isthmus of Panama formed. P. transitus likely looked a lot like the modern capuchin monkey. | Florida Museum of Natural History/Kristen Grace

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Seven fossilized monkey teeth discovered in the recent Panama Canal expansion pushed back the North American arrival date of the animals by nearly 18 million years.

Researchers have long thought that some 30 million years ago, monkeys migrated by land bridge or a raft of debris from Africa to South America — and stayed there. They headed north only after the Isthmus of Panama was fully formed, about 3.5 million years ago.

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Researcher Jonathan Bloch displays the fossil teeth of the new species, found during the Panama Canal's recent expansion, in a wax jaw. | Florida Museum of Natural History/Kristen Grace

But the fossilized teeth, which belong to the newly described monkey species Panamacebus transitus, predate the Panamanian land bridge by millions of years, according to the team that published the find online in Nature in April.

The 21 million-year-old teeth were found on part of the isthmus that was a peninsula at the time. They suggest a population of P. transitus traveled miles of then-open water between South and North America, perhaps on a raft — the earliest mammals known to have made this intercontinental migration by more than 12 million years.

Sadly, the continent-hopping exploits of P. transitus were probably short-lived: They appear unrelated to any monkeys currently living in the region, indicating the pioneer population died out.

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