Woolly Mammoth Fossils Provide Glimpse into Past
MANAGUA – Woolly mammoth remains discovered last month on Nicaragua’s central Pacific coast are providing new evidence that the pre-historic mammoth and other gigantic mammals migrated as far south as Central America during the Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago, according to paleontologist Ramiro García.
Nicaragua’s fossil record is also beginning to suggest this particular area was a haven for mammoths in modern-day Central America, paleontologists say.
On Sept. 23, a fisherman in the Pacific fishing town of Masachapa stumbled upon what are thought to be woolly mammoth remains fossilized in seaside rock. He reported the finding – including a femur bone the size of a car bumper – to Nicaragua’s Cultural Institute.
“Paleontologists used to think that mammoths didn’t migrate through Central America,” said García, during a recent tour of the gloomy basement of the NationalMuseum in Managua, where the mammoth finds are being dried.
But that theory was challenged when the first mammoth fossils were discovered here in 1996. Back then, residents of El Palmar, in the southern Pacific municipality of Tola, found mammoth remains along the SanLuisRiver, including a nearly intact jaw bone and the teeth of an animal that was estimated to be 10,000 pounds and 15-feet tall. Those mammoth fossils are on display at the museum in Managua.
Similar mammoths remains have also been found in other parts of Nicaragua and as far south as Costa Rica.
British paleontologist and mammoth expert Adrian Lister said of last month’s find in Nicaragua: “This is certainly interesting as it would represent a very southern record of mammoth. Mammoth fossils are abundant in Mexico, and there are a few reports as far south as Costa Rica, but the validity of these Central American records is unclear.”
The site of the recent discovery, which includes mammoth femurs, vertebrae and a small piece of husk, is at the mouth of an estuary where remains of a giant bison and giant sloth have also been found, suggesting Nicaragua was frequented by an array of Pleistocene epoch “megafauna” tens of thousands of years ago, García said.
The fisherman who discovered the mammoth remains made the mistake of taking them to his home before contacting the Nicaraguan Culture Institute, which manages the NationalMuseum. García said palaeontologists, for that reason, aren’t able to study the context in which the remains were found.
Indeed, the scientist said, it is a rarity for such finds to be reported at all. García said that due to poverty, many fossil finders chose to loot such sites to try to sell the fossils on the private collectibles market, or even worse, they unknowingly use fossils as firewood for cooking or for other purposes.
“It really is important to know more about the paleontology of Nicaragua, and each discovery makes an important addition to a fossil record that has been little studied or worked on over the years,” said Spencer Lucas, a paleontologist at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in the U.S. city of Albuquerque.
Lucas studied mammoth findings in Costa Rica and recently toured Nicaragua’s archaeological sites in Nicaragua with García.
In a phone interview from Albuquerque, Lucas told The Nica Times this week that an unusually high number of mammoth fossils have been found in Nicaragua compared to the rest of Central America, which he says may be due to the possibility that Nicaragua housed more low grasslands for the grazing goliaths. Nicaragua’s big valleys, bountiful rivers and lakes also may have supplied the prehistoric mammals with water and low grasslands, García added.
While the mammoths only made it as far south as Costa Rica, their smaller, more agile, leaf-eating relatives, the mastodons, made it all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego, according to the existing fossil records.
The mammoth and the mastodon are related to modern-day elephants. They originated in Africa and migrated through Eurasia and crossed the Bering Strait some 15 million years ago before migrating down into the Americas, according to Lucas.
Mastodon remains have been found in recent years along the San Juan River in southern Nicaragua and the shores of LakeCocibolca. Until now, findings of mastodon remains have been more common in Central America, with discoveries in El Salvador and Guatemala. Nicaragua has been the exception in terms of producing the much larger mammoth fossils.
García said Central America may have been a haven for Ice Age animals trying to escape climate change that turned their northern homes into inhabitable frozen landscapes.
“It’s possible that at some point everything froze over, which would have been the cause for the migration” southward, García said.
Lucas says the migratory mammoths were simply expanding their habitat to fill unfilled niches for large plant-eating mammals in the Americas.
As many as 20 million years ago, Central America was still a string of islands. As the islands came together to form a land bridge between North and South America, largescale migrations occurred on the isthmus, resulting in an explosion of species.
García estimates the latest mammoth remains date somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000 years old, putting the giant creature in the Pleistocene epoch. García suspects humans who lived on the isthmus at that time may have hunted the prehistoric animals.
Recent excavations by García’s colleague Jorge Espinoza, of the mysterious huellas de Acahualinca, a site on the shores of lake Nicaragua where human footprints were preserved in volcanic ash some 6,000 years ago, suggest megafauna such as bison were walking on the same earth as the ancient humans, García said.
But it’s hard to draw conclusions, because Nicaragua’s fossil record is so undeveloped, U.S. paleontologist Lucas said.
“Scientifically, Nicaragua is really, really understudied,” he said.
Gaining knowledge of the fossil record will also give scientists a window into Nicaragua’s understudied geology, since fossils allow scientists to date rock. Three decades of war and poverty have prevented any thorough study, Lucas said.
A stout biologist who dons a baseball cap and occasionally pushes his sliding glasses back up his nose, García may well be Nicaragua’s first paleontologist, Lucas said.
“To my knowledge he is the first local who has ever studied paleontology. He’s a very rare individual. If there had been a Ramiro García 50 or 100 years ago (in Nicaragua), we would probably know a lot more,” Lucas said.
Peering over the drying mammoth bones in the museum’s dim-lit basement, García said he is sharing last month’s find with experts around the globe.
“These remains are tangible evidence proving mammoths came down to our territory in Central America,” he said.
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