Prehistoric Dolphin Skull Discovered in Ecuador From a Mysterious Species That Lived 25 Million Years Ago

The fossilized skull of a now extinct species of ancient dolphin was recently found in Ecuador. The fossil is likely from the Oligocene epoch, making its between 33.9 to 23 million years old. And could yield clues to when exactly the Isthmus of Panama, which joins North and South America, first arose.

The researchers who found the fossil believe it is from a completely new species of ancient marine mammal. The team, from Osaka Museum of Natural History in Japan, has named it Urkudelphis chawpipacha. A study on the finding is now published online in PLOS One.

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In an interview with PLOS Research News, lead study author Yoshiro Tanaka explained that the dolphin's name comes from a combination of several words. Urku is the word for mountains in Kichaw, a native language of Ecuador. Delphis has Greek origins and is used to signify dolphins.

As for chawpipacha, that part of the name is a combination of chawpi, meaning "half" or "middle," and pacha, meaning "the world," a choice intended to represent the equator, Tanaka told PLOS Research News.

dolphin skull
The dolphin skull was found in Ecuador. Tanaka et al (2017)

The Oligocene was a period of evolutionary bursts, including the emergence of elephants with tusks, horses, and many grass types, University of California Museum of Paleontology reported. The time period saw the rise of many creatures that still exist today, such as deer, camels, cats, dogs and primates.

Dolphin fossils from the Oligocene time period are not usually found so close to the equator, another fact that makes this finding so rare, according to a press release on the finding. And this is the first named fossil dolphin species to ever have been found in Ecuador.

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According to Tanaka, this dolphin skull also provides insights into major geographic changes that occured in prehistoric times. Today, North and South America are linked by the Isthmus of Panama, but this sliver of a landmass did not always exist and exactly when it first emerged is unclear. Tanaka says that this dolphin skull could help settle the question.

"The dates for this event are still a matter of strong debate, but the dolphin described here lived before the rise of the isthmus," Tanaka told PLOS Research News.

The emergence of the Isthmus of Panama had a huge effect on animal evolution. For example, without the isthmus, all the creatures in South America would be marsupials, as they would have never been invaded by nonmarsupial creatures from other continents, The Smithsonian reported.

Weather patterns also changed when the landmass came into being. The formation changed ocean patterns, which may have strengthened the Gulf Stream current and likely helped contribute to weather conditions of El Niño, the warm phase of the the weather pattern known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Whether or not the fossilized dolphin skull will finally solve this mystery is still unknown. But regardless, the tiny skull is still a major find and confirms a new flippered friend that swam the global waters millions of years ago.