Researchers Have Discovered A 22 Million-Year-Old Lost Forest

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit:  ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP / Getty Images

Discovered along the Panama Canal, a lost ancient mangrove species has resurfaced after 22 million years. An entire ancient forest was located during the excavation, with this new ancient species shocking researchers. It serves as a major research achievement for an already seasoned research island.

An incredible discovery

Researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have made an incredible discovery in the Panama Canal. Working on Barro Island, they uncovered a lost ancient mangrove forest. This discovery was made possible by finding a fossilized mangrove species that dated back to the Aquitanian stage of the Early Miocene period. In fact, they found 121 fossilized wood specimens in total.

The researchers said that studying the area where they found the fossils led them to believe “that the fossil wood assemblage on Barro Colorado Island comprised a mangrove forest growing along the coast of the volcanic chain of central Panama.” Aptly chosen, they decided to name the newly discovered ancient species after the area where it was found: Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis

How the island was formed

Back in the Early Miocene period, central Panama was part of a long, narrow peninsula. At this time, it was connected to North America but was separated from South America. Analyses of the fossils suggests that the ancient mangrove forest grew near a river or ocean but disappeared as a result of the intense volcanic activity that took place in Panama. Researchers believe it was one single volcanic event that buried the ancient forest.

A mangrove forest growing on either side of a river.
An example of a living mangrove forest along the Tárcoles River in Costa Rica. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket / Getty Images)

Interestingly, the wood anatomy of the mangrove fossils shows that they are close in composition to the mangrove species commonly found in Southeast Asia. Also, they estimate that this particular species grew to an average height of 82 feet tall. However, they also estimate that the tallest of the trees could reach a whopping 131 feet tall, considerably taller than the average height.

The longevity of mangrove forests

Mangrove forests are unique in that they are known to thrive in tropical and subtropical locations. While they are unable to survive through freezing temperatures, their root system allows them to grow effectively regardless of fluctuating tides. Thus, it only makes sense that these species are most commonly found growing along coastlines and riverbanks.

Looking up at trees in a forest.
View of the forest in Barro Colorado island, 2015. (Photo Credit: RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP / Getty Images)

Barro Colorado Island has a long history of research surrounding tropical flora and fauna. Research on the island began as early as 1913, making it responsible for some of the oldest tropical research stations in the world. It is often referred to as the “rainforest-covered living laboratory.”

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Discovering the lost ancient mangrove species is a cherry on top of over 100 years of research on the island.