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Lasers and AI locate forest that was lost for 22 million years

Researchers on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal have unearthed a lost mangrove forest, estimated to be over 22 million years old.

This revelation was made possible through the identification of the fossilized Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis, a mangrove species previously unknown to science.

How to find a lost mangrove forest

The study, conducted by experts at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, utilized radiometric analysis to date the forest and its 121 fossilized wood specimens back to the Aquitanian stage of the Early Miocene.

During this era, central Panama was a narrow peninsula, bridging North America and separated from South America, with high volcanic activity.

It’s this volcanic activity that likely led to the forest’s destruction. Analyses of sediment and rock indicate that these trees thrived in river or ocean environments until a volcanic event abruptly buried them.

Understanding mangroves

Intriguingly, the wood anatomy of the newly discovered mangroves bears similarity to a type found in Southeast Asia.

The researchers named this species after its discovery site, Barro Colorado Island, and estimate that these trees reached heights of up to 82 feet.

The tallest specimens measured beyond 131 feet, surpassing the height of contemporary mangrove forests.

The authors note, “The fossil wood assemblage on Barro Colorado Island likely represents a mangrove forest along the coast of central Panama’s volcanic chain.”

A lost mangrove forest in a tropical forest

This finding underscores the adaptability of mangrove forests, which thrive in tropical and subtropical regions, enduring saltwater environments and fluctuating tides due to their dense, entangled root systems.

Barro Colorado Island’s significance extends beyond this discovery. Formed in 1913 during the Panama Canal’s construction, this 9-square-mile island is a hub for tropical research, boasting one of the oldest stations globally.

Known as a “rainforest-covered living laboratory,” it offers unparalleled opportunities to study biology, ecology, and animal behavior.

The discovery of the Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis adds a new chapter to Barro Colorado Island’s rich history of over a century, and opens a window into the world of ancient forests, highlighting the island’s continued importance in the realm of scientific discovery.

Barro Colorado Island: A jewel of scientific discovery

As discussed above, Barro Colorado Island, nestled in the heart of the Panama Canal, stands as a testament to the wonders of nature and the advancements of science.

This 9-square-mile island, formed during the Panama Canal’s construction in 1913, has transformed into one of the world’s most significant hubs for tropical research.

Birth of a research oasis

The creation of Lake Gatun in 1913 gave rise to Barro Colorado Island. This event inadvertently created a unique ecosystem, isolating a section of rainforest that has since become a living laboratory for scientists from around the globe.

Home to one of the oldest tropical research stations in the world, the island offers an unparalleled environment for the study of biology, ecology, and animal behavior.

Hotspot for biodiversity

Barro Colorado Island boasts an incredible array of biodiversity. Researchers meticulously study its rich flora and fauna, providing insights into the complexities of tropical ecosystems.

The island serves as a safe haven for numerous species, offering a unique opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat.

Lost mangrove forests and other discoveries

The island has been the site of numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including the recent unearthing of a 22-million-year-old mangrove forest, discussed earlier in this article.

This discovery involved the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species, Sonneratioxylon barrocoloradoensis.

Education and conservation

Barro Colorado Island has become a melting pot for scientists from various disciplines and countries, fostering international collaboration.

The research conducted here transcends borders, contributing significantly to our global understanding of tropical environments and their conservation.

The island also plays a vital role in education and conservation efforts. By hosting students and researchers, it promotes environmental awareness and encourages the development of conservation strategies.

The research conducted here has profound implications for understanding and preserving tropical ecosystems worldwide.

Glimpse into the future

As we face increasing environmental challenges, Barro Colorado Island stands as a beacon of hope and a source of invaluable information.

The research here not only helps us understand our planet’s past but also guides us in making informed decisions for its future.

In summary, Barro Colorado Island is a cornerstone of scientific discovery, a haven for biodiversity, and a catalyst for future conservation efforts. Its continued study is essential for advancing our understanding of the natural world.

The full study was published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.


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