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A new fossil whale species from Panama:
Nanokogia isthmia
STRI Panama

No one knows the fossil outcrops along the shores of the Caribbean coastline east of the Panama Canal as well as Carlos DeGracia. After graduating from the University of Panama in 2009 he spent much of his time as an intern at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute exploring the “costa abajo.”

Not only did he find a huge fossil Marlin, the basis for his master’s thesis at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic and featured with other fossils found by staff scientist Carlos Jaramillo’s team in an exhibit at Panama’s BioMuseo, he also found part of the skull of a tiny sperm whale near the town of Piña in 2012.

One of the post-doctoral fellows working on this project was Jorge Velez-Juarbe. Now assistant curator of Marine Mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Velez-Juarbe found a larger whale skull fragment nearby in 2013. Based on the two fragments, the team named a new species: Nanokogia isthmia. Its species name refers to the Isthmus of Panama.

Nanokogia belongs to a group of whales called the Kogiids. Both of the two living species: the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales, are close relatives of the huge sperm whale, which can reach 2.5 m (67 feet) in length. Like Moby Dick, the smaller whales have been hunted for the spermaceti organ in their heads, a source of waxes and oils that were once important ingredients of cosmetics, candles and ointments.

The spermaceti organ itself is thought to play a role in the generation of clicks made for echolocation and communication. The song of the extinct whale may have been different, however, because its spermaceti organ was probably bigger than the organ in the modern dwarf or pygmy whales.

“Our study is part of a larger scientific effort aimed at understanding the changes in the marine habitats resulting from the complete closure of the Isthmus of Panama,” said Velez-Juarbe, referring to the separation between the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea that took place sometime within the last 10 million years.

Funding for this project came from the U.S. National Science Foundation and Panama’s National Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation, SENACYT. The fossil excavations and collecting in Panama’s Colon Province was done with permission from the country’s Office of Mineral Resources. Fossils were shipped to other museums for comparison with their specimens via a permit issued by Panama’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued to STRI.

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