Scientist accidentally discovers 20-million-year-old tusked sea cow in Panama

New species is oldest example of marine mammal ever found in Central America

Tom Barnes
Wednesday 20 February 2019 13:49
Comments
Researchers conducting fieldwork on the banks of the Panama Canal unearthed the new species of sea cow
Researchers conducting fieldwork on the banks of the Panama Canal unearthed the new species of sea cow

A researcher inadvertently discovered the remains of Central America’s oldest marine mammal – a 20-million-year-old tusked sea cow.

Steven Manchester, a curator of paleobotany at the Florida Museum of Natural History, had been looking for fossil plants when he stumbled across bones during fieldwork close to the Panama Canal.

The researcher had split off from a group of vertebrate palaeontologists he was working with to inspect the shoreline for fossil leaves and petrified wood, when he saw parts of a skeleton sticking out of the bank.

“He quickly walked us over to where he’d found a skeleton sticking out of the rock exposure,” said Aaron Wood, a museum postdoctoral researcher who led the fieldwork in Panama.

“There were two or three vertebrae, orange-ish in colour, dipping into the black rock on the side of the canal and a couple of ribs around them. We guessed that there would be more under the rock.”

The researchers then performed what was described as an “emergency fossil excavation”, due to rising water levels in the canal, to reveal a “remarkably complete” ancient sea cow skeleton.

Thought to be around 20 million years old, the discovery is the first evidence of a marine mammal from the Pacific side of the canal.

The fossil skull, vertebrae, ribs and other bones belong to a new genus and species, Culebratherium alemani, a tusked seagrass-grazing relative of modern dugongs.

In a paper published in in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, researchers said the sea cow specimen was about 15 feet long, but its small tusks indicated it was not yet an adult.

The creature appears to have been a powerful eater - using its thick neck muscles, tusks and downward-pointing snout to dig pits in the ocean floor to reach highly-nutritious seagrass stems.

Although 30 species of dugong have been recovered in the fossil record, only one survives today after Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction within 27 years of its discovery by Europeans in 1741.

The newly-discovered species is thought to have originated in the West Atlantic and Caribbean and dispersed westward through Panama, where the seaway did not close until a few million years ago.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

“Today, Panama is the juncture between two continents, and that's where we have a mixture of mammals between North and South America,” Dr Wood added. “In the early Miocene, when this dugong lived, it wasn't a land connection but a sea connection between the Atlantic and Pacific. We would expect to see communities of sea cows there, too.”

The researchers named C. alemani after the Culebra Formation where it was found and Alberto Aleman Zubieta, a former chief executive of the Panama Canal.

The specimen was excavated as part of a large-scale, years-long project to salvage fossils during the expansion of the Panama Canal, which temporarily exposed fresh outcrops.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in