Panama Canal’s lost forest, missing for 22 million years, rediscovered with fossilized trees from a volcano

The Lost Mangrove Forest of Barro Colorado Island

Introduction: A once-thriving mangrove forest on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal met a tragic end 22 million years ago due to a violent volcanic eruption.

The aftermath of this catastrophic event has recently been unearthed by scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, shedding light on a forgotten chapter in Earth’s history.

Discovery of Fossilized Remains: The research team discovered 121 well-preserved pieces of wood, remnants of the ancient mangrove forest that once bordered the waters of Barro Colorado Island.

These fossilized specimens retain their distinctive features, including water vessels, providing valuable insights into the characteristics of the long-lost ecosystem.

Volcanic Eruption and Lahar Flow: The evidence suggests that a colossal volcanic eruption triggered a lahar—a destructive flow of water, mud, ash, and rocks.

Lahars move rapidly, resembling wet concrete, covering vast areas without allowing organisms to decompose.

Silica-rich waters accompanying the lahar infiltrated living tissues, resulting in remarkably preserved fossils frozen in a moment of time.

Mangrove Forest in the Miocene Epoch: Around 23 million years ago, during the early Miocene Epoch, the collision of South America and the Caribbean plate gave rise to the landscape of Panama.

Barro Colorado Island emerged, surrounded by a thriving mangrove forest reaching heights of 130 feet.

Sediment samples reveal that the forest thrived in the brackish zone, where salty and fresh waters intermingled, creating ideal conditions for mangroves.

Environmental Factors: The brackish water alone did not make the conditions ideal for the massive mangrove forest.

During the Miocene, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 500 parts per million (ppm), significantly higher than today’s 419 ppm.

This elevated CO2 concentration allowed ancient mangrove species, including the Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis, to achieve greater heights compared to their modern counterparts.

Unique Species and Extinction: Scientists have identified the fossilized tree as Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis, belonging to a genus that still exists in Southeast Asia but is absent in South and Central America.

The study concludes that the same geological activities that formed Barro Colorado Island also marked the demise of this ancient forest.

A local volcano erupted, covering the mangrove trees with ash, rocks, and mud, sealing their fate in a single catastrophic event.

Global Extinctions and Earth’s Dynamics: The study authors propose that similar local extinctions likely occurred globally since the Miocene.

The dynamic interplay of shifting tectonic plates, the emergence of mangroves, and volcanic activities shaped Earth’s landscapes.

The lost mangrove forest of Barro Colorado Island stands as a testament to the cyclical nature of Earth’s geological processes, where creation and destruction are woven into the fabric of our planet’s history.

Science News

TDPel Media

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