June 8, 2009

Fossil horse teeth found at Panama Canal

U.S. paleontologists have discovered a set of fossil teeth in the Panama Canal earthworks that belonged to a horse living 15 to 18 million years ago.

Aldo Rincon, a paleontology intern at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, unearthed the set of fossil teeth that Bruce MacFadden, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, described as being from Anchitherium clarencei, a three-toed browsing horse.

Expanding the Panama Canal to make way for super-sized ships is providing geologists and paleontologists with rare finds. Carlos Jaramillo, senior scientist at the institute, has, in collaboration with the University of Florida and the Panama Canal Authority, organized a team of researchers and students who move in following dynamite blasts to map and collect exposed fossils.

This is one of very few places in the tropics where we have access to fresh outcrops before they are washed away by torrential rains or overgrown by vegetation, and we expect the fossils that we have been salvaging to resolve some major scientific mysteries, said Jaramillo. What geological forces combined to create the Panama land bridge? Was the flora and fauna in Panama before the land bridge closed similar to that in North America, or did it include other elements?

The latest finding appears in the Journal of Paleontology.