Central American Seaway

Last updated

The Central American Seaway, also known as the PanamanicInter-American and Proto-Caribbean Seaway, was a body of water that once separated North America from South America. It formed in the Mesozoic (200–154 Ma) during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, and closed when the Isthmus of Panama was formed by volcanic activity in the late Pliocene (2.76–2.54 Ma).

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

South America A continent in the Western Hemisphere, and mostly in the Southern Hemisphere

South America is a continent in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas, which is how it is viewed in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas. The reference to South America instead of other regions has increased in the last decades due to changing geopolitical dynamics.

The Mesozoic Era is an interval of geological time from about 252 to 66 million years ago. It is also called the Age of Reptiles, a phrase introduced by the 19th century paleontologist Gideon Mantell who viewed it as dominated by diapsids such as Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, Plesiosaurus and Pterodactylus. To paleobotanists, this Era is also called the Age of Conifers.


The Great American Interchange, a faunal exchange that occurred after formation of the Isthmus of Panama bridged North and South America. Examples of migrant species in both Americas are shown. Great American Biotic Interchange examples.svg
The Great American Interchange, a faunal exchange that occurred after formation of the Isthmus of Panama bridged North and South America. Examples of migrant species in both Americas are shown.

The closure of the Central American Seaway had tremendous effects on oceanic circulation and the biogeography of the adjacent seas, isolating many species and triggering speciation and diversification of tropical and sub-tropical marine fauna. [1] The inflow of nutrient-rich water of deep Pacific origin into the Caribbean was blocked, so local species had to adapt to an environment of lower productivity. [2] It had an even larger impact on terrestrial life. The seaway had isolated South America for much of the Cenozoic, allowing the evolution of a wholly unique diverse mammalian fauna there; when it closed, a faunal exchange with North America ensued, leading to the extinction of many of the native South American forms. [3] [4]

Ocean current Directional mass flow of oceanic water generated by external or internal forces

An ocean current is a continuous, directed movement of sea water generated by a number of forces acting upon the water, including wind, the Coriolis effect, breaking waves, cabbeling, and temperature and salinity differences. Depth contours, shoreline configurations, and interactions with other currents influence a current's direction and strength. Ocean currents are primarily horizontal water movements.

Biogeography The study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time

Biogeography is the study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time. Organisms and biological communities often vary in a regular fashion along geographic gradients of latitude, elevation, isolation and habitat area. Phytogeography is the branch of biogeography that studies the distribution of plants. Zoogeography is the branch that studies distribution of animals.

Speciation The evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species

Speciation is the evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species. The biologist Orator F. Cook coined the term in 1906 for cladogenesis, the splitting of lineages, as opposed to anagenesis, phyletic evolution within lineages. Charles Darwin was the first to describe the role of natural selection in speciation in his 1859 book The Origin of Species. He also identified sexual selection as a likely mechanism, but found it problematic.


The evidence for when the Central American landmass emerged and the closing of the Central American Seaway can be divided into three categories. The first is the direct geologic observation of crustal thickening and submarine deposits in Central America. The second is the Great American Interchange of vertebrates between North and South America which required a continuous land bridge across the two areas for the organisms to travel along with a climate that was very different than the climate today. Lastly is the development of differences in marine assemblages and their isotopic signatures in the Caribbean from those in the Pacific. [5] [6] The Central American Seaway was closed by the elevation of the Central American Isthmus which is proposed to have occurred three and a half to five million years ago. The closing of the Central American Seaway is also supported by the evolution of taxa on different sides of the Central American Isthmus along with the different histories of the oceans on either side of the isthmus.

Great American Interchange Paleozoographic event resulting from the formation of the Isthmus of Panama

The Great American Interchange was an important late Cenozoic paleozoogeographic event in which land and freshwater fauna migrated from North America via Central America to South America and vice versa, as the volcanic Isthmus of Panama rose up from the sea floor and bridged the formerly separated continents. Although there were earlier dispersals, probably over water, the migration accelerated dramatically about 2.7 million years (Ma) ago during the Piacenzian age. It resulted in the joining of the Neotropic and Nearctic ecozones definitively to form the Americas. The interchange is visible from observation of both biostratigraphy and nature (neontology). Its most dramatic effect is on the zoogeography of mammals but it also gave an opportunity for reptiles, amphibians, arthropods, weak-flying or flightless birds, and even freshwater fish to migrate.

Vertebrate subphylum of chordates

Vertebrates comprise all species of animals within the subphylum Vertebrata. Vertebrates represent the overwhelming majority of the phylum Chordata, with currently about 69,276 species described. Vertebrates include the jawless fishes and jawed vertebrates, which include the cartilaginous fishes and the bony fishes.

An isotopic signature is a ratio of non-radiogenic 'stable isotopes', stable radiogenic isotopes, or unstable radioactive isotopes of particular elements in an investigated material. The ratios of isotopes in a sample material are measured by isotope-ratio mass spectrometry against an isotopic reference material. This process is called isotope analysis.


The closing of the seaway allowed a major migration of land mammals between North and South America, known as the Great American Interchange. This allowed species of mammals such as cats, canids, horses, elephants and camels to migrate from North America to South America, while porcupines, ground sloths, glyptodonts and terror birds made the reverse migration. There is much controversy about glacial and interglacial climates in South America. Research shows that vegetation in most of the Amazon basin has changed very little since glacial times, although it is believed there was more savanna present during that period. A closed seaway would have led to a very different North Atlantic Ocean circulation, impacting the surrounding atmospheric temperatures, which in turn affected the glacial cycle. The emergence of the isthmus caused a reflection of the westward-flowing North Equatorial Current northward and enhanced the northward-flowing Gulf Stream. [7] The Pacific coast of South America would have cooled as the input of warm water from the Caribbean was cut off. This trend is thought to have caused the extinction of the marine sloths of the area. [8]

New World porcupine family of mammals

The New World porcupines, family Erethizontidae, are large arboreal rodents, distinguished by their spiny coverings from which they take their name. They inhabit forests and wooded regions across North America, and into northern South America. Although both the New World and Old World porcupine families belong to the Hystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia, they are quite different and are not closely related.

Ground sloth informal group of mammals (fossil)

Ground sloths are a diverse group of extinct sloths, in the mammalian superorder Xenarthra. The term is used as a reference for all extinct sloths because of the large size of the earliest forms discovered, as opposed to existing tree sloths. The Pilosans of the Caribbean, the most recent survivors, lived in the Antilles, possibly until 1550 BC. However, radiocarbon dating suggests an age of between 2819 and 2660 BC for the last occurrence of Megalocnus in Cuba. Ground sloths had been extinct on the mainland of North and South America for 10,000 years or more. Their later survival in the Caribbean correlates with the later colonization of this area by humans. Some island populations persisted 5,000–6,000 years longer than their continental relatives.

Glyptodont Subfamily of extinct mammals related to armadillos

Glyptodontinae is an extinct subfamily of large, heavily armored relatives of armadillos, members of the mostly South American mammalian superorder Xenarthra. They developed in South America around 20 million years ago and spread to southern North America after the continents became connected several million years ago. The best-known genus within the subfamily is Glyptodon.

See also

Atlantic meridional overturning circulation A system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean, having a northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers and a southward flow of colder, deep waters that are part of the thermohaline circulation

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is the zonally-integrated component of surface and deep currents in the Atlantic Ocean. It is characterized by a northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic, and a southward flow of colder, deep waters that are part of the thermohaline circulation. These "limbs" are linked by regions of overturning in the Nordic and Labrador Seas and the Southern Ocean. The AMOC is an important component of the Earth’s climate system, and is a result of both atmospheric and thermohaline drivers.

North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) is a deep water mass formed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Thermohaline circulation of the world's oceans involves the flow of warm surface waters from the southern hemisphere into the North Atlantic. Water flowing northward becomes modified through evaporation and mixing with other water masses, leading to increased salinity. When this water reaches the North Atlantic it cools and sinks through convection, due to its decreased temperature and increased salinity resulting in increased density. NADW is the outflow of this thick deep layer, which can be detected by its high salinity, high oxygen content, nutrient minima, high 14C/12C, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Paleoceanography is the study of the history of the oceans in the geologic past with regard to circulation, chemistry, biology, geology and patterns of sedimentation and biological productivity. Paleoceanographic studies using environment models and different proxies enable the scientific community to assess the role of the oceanic processes in the global climate by the re-construction of past climate at various intervals. Paleoceanographic research is also intimately tied to paleoclimatology.

Related Research Articles

Atlantic Ocean Ocean between Europe, Africa and the Americas

The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest of the world's oceans, with an area of about 106,460,000 square kilometers. It covers approximately 20 percent of the Earth's surface and about 29 percent of its water surface area. It separates the "Old World" from the "New World".

The Cretaceous is a geologic period and system that spans 79 million years from the end of the Jurassic Period 145 million years ago (mya) to the beginning of the Paleogene Period 66 mya. It is the last period of the Mesozoic Era, and the longest period of the Phanerozoic Eon. The Cretaceous Period is usually abbreviated K, for its German translation Kreide.

Caribbean Sea A sea of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by North, Central, and South America

The Caribbean Sea is a sea of the Atlantic Ocean in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere. It is bounded by Mexico and Central America to the west and south west, to the north by the Greater Antilles starting with Cuba, to the east by the Lesser Antilles, and to the south by the north coast of South America.

The Oligocene is a geologic epoch of the Paleogene Period and extends from about 33.9 million to 23 million years before the present. As with other older geologic periods, the rock beds that define the epoch are well identified but the exact dates of the start and end of the epoch are slightly uncertain. The name Oligocene was coined in 1854 by the German paleontologist Heinrich Ernst Beyrich; the name comes from the Ancient Greek ὀλίγος and καινός, and refers to the sparsity of extant forms of molluscs. The Oligocene is preceded by the Eocene Epoch and is followed by the Miocene Epoch. The Oligocene is the third and final epoch of the Paleogene Period.

The Pleistocene is the geological epoch which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world's most recent period of repeated glaciations. The end of the Pleistocene corresponds with the end of the last glacial period and also with the end of the Paleolithic age used in archaeology.

Xenarthra Superorder of mammals that diversified in South America

Xenarthra (Latin, from Ancient Greek ξένος + ἄρθρον is a superorder of placental mammals found in the Americas. It currently consists of anteaters, tree sloths, and armadillos. Xenarthrans originated in South America during the Paleocene about 59 million years ago. They evolved and diversified extensively in South America during the continent's long period of isolation in the early to mid Cenozoic Era. They spread to the Antilles by the early Miocene and, starting about 3 Mya, spread to Central and North America as part of the Great American Interchange. Nearly all of the formerly abundant megafaunal xenarthrans, such as ground sloths, glyptodonts, and pampatheres, became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

Thermohaline circulation A part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes

Thermohaline circulation (THC) is a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. The adjective thermohaline derives from thermo- referring to temperature and -haline referring to salt content, factors which together determine the density of sea water. Wind-driven surface currents travel polewards from the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, cooling en route, and eventually sinking at high latitudes. This dense water then flows into the ocean basins. While the bulk of it upwells in the Southern Ocean, the oldest waters upwell in the North Pacific. Extensive mixing therefore takes place between the ocean basins, reducing differences between them and making the Earth's oceans a global system. On their journey, the water masses transport both energy and mass of substances around the globe. As such, the state of the circulation has a large impact on the climate of the Earth.

Isthmus of Panama narrow landstrip in Panama

The Isthmus of Panama, also historically known as the Isthmus of Darien, is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, linking North and South America. It contains the country of Panama and the Panama Canal. Like many isthmuses, it is a location of great strategic value.

Caribbean Plate A mostly oceanic tectonic plate including part of Central America and the Caribbean Sea

The Caribbean Plate is a mostly oceanic tectonic plate underlying Central America and the Caribbean Sea off the north coast of South America.

An inland sea is a shallow sea that covers central areas of continents during periods of high sea level that result in marine transgressions. In modern times, continents stand high, eustatic sea levels are low, and there are few inland seas, the largest being Hudson Bay. Modern examples might also include the recently reflooded Persian Gulf, and the South China Sea that presently covers the Sunda Shelf.

Geography of North America

North America is the third largest continent, and is also a portion of the second largest supercontinent if North and South America are combined into the Americas and Africa, Europe, and Asia are considered to be part of one supercontinent called Afro-Eurasia.

Geological history of Earth The sequence of major geological events in Earths past

The geological history of Earth follows the major events in Earth's past based on the geological time scale, a system of chronological measurement based on the study of the planet's rock layers (stratigraphy). Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula, a disk-shaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun, which also created the rest of the Solar System.

Gulf Stream A warm, swift Atlantic current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico flows around the tip of Florida, along the east coast of the United States before crossing the Atlantic Ocean

The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension the North Atlantic Drift, is a warm and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The process of western intensification causes the Gulf Stream to be a northward accelerating current off the east coast of North America. At about 40°0′N30°0′W, it splits in two, with the northern stream, the North Atlantic Drift, crossing to Northern Europe and the southern stream, the Canary Current, recirculating off West Africa.

The phenomenon of paleoflooding is apparent in the geologic record over various spatial and temporal scales. It often occurred on a large scale, and was the result of either glacial ice melt causing large outbursts of freshwater, or high sea levels breaching bodies of freshwater. If a freshwater outflow event was large enough that the water reached the ocean system, it caused changes in salinity that potentially affected ocean circulation and global climate. Freshwater flows could also accumulate to form continental glacial lakes, and this is another indicator of large-scale flooding. In contrast, periods of high global sea level could cause marine water to breach natural dams and flow into bodies of freshwater. Changes in salinity of freshwater and marine bodies can be detected from the analysis of organisms that inhabited those bodies at a given time, as certain organisms are more suited to live in either fresh or saline conditions.

The geology of Panama includes the complex tectonic interplay between the Pacific, Cocos and Nazca plates, the Caribbean Plate and the Panama Microplate.


  1. Lessios, H.A. (December 2008). "The Great American Schism: Divergence of Marine Organisms After the Rise of the Central American Isthmus". Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. Palo Alto. 39: 63–91. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.38.091206.095815.
  2. Jain, S.; Collins, L. S. (2007-04-30). "Trends in Caribbean Paleoproductivity related to the Neogene closure of the Central American Seaway". Marine Micropaleontology. 63 (1–2): 57–74. doi:10.1016/j.marmicro.2006.11.003.
  3. Simpson, George Gaylord (1980). Splendid Isolation: The Curious History of South American Mammals. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 266. ISBN   0-300-02434-7. OCLC   5219346.
  4. Marshall, L. G. (July–August 1988). "Land Mammals and the Great American Interchange" (PDF). American Scientist . 76 (4): 380–388. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-03-02. Retrieved 2014-04-22.
  5. http://www.colorado.edu/geolsci/faculty/molnarpdf/2008Paleoc.CentralAmericanSeaway.pdf
  6. Molnar, Peter. "Closing of the Central American Seaway and the Ice Age: A critical review" (PDF).
  7. "Tertiary Period | geochronology". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2015-12-07.
  8. Amson, E.; Argot, C.; McDonald, H. G.; de Muizon, C. (2015). "Osteology and functional morphology of the axial postcranium of the marine sloth Thalassocnus (Mammalia, Tardigrada) with paleobiological implications". Journal of Mammalian Evolution. 22 (4): 473–518. doi:10.1007/s10914-014-9280-7.