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Amazon river dolphin

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Ancient Giant River Dolphin Discovered in the Peruvian Amazon

By Sophie Kevany

Published on March 20, 2024

The Extinct Giant

Scientists have made a remarkable discovery in the heart of the Amazon rainforest: the fossilized skull of a giant river dolphin. This ancient creature, known as Pebanista yacuruna, once swam in the rivers of Peru approximately 16 million years ago. Its colossal size set it apart, measuring up to 3.5 meters in length. This makes it the largest-known species of river dolphin to have ever inhabited our planet.

Clues to Future Extinction

The finding of this new species sheds light on the precarious situation faced by today's river dolphins. All river dolphins, including the fossil's closest living relatives found in the Ganges and Indus rivers, confront similar extinction threats. Over the next 20 to 40 years, these remarkable aquatic mammals could vanish forever.

Escape to Freshwater

What led to the demise of Pebanista yacuruna? According to lead author Aldo Benites-Palomino, this ancient dolphin belonged to the Platanistoidea family, which once thrived in oceans between 24 and 16 million years ago. However, surviving river dolphins are now the remnants of a diverse marine lineage that abandoned the seas in search of new food sources in freshwater rivers. These rivers, Benites-Palomino explains, serve as the escape valve for both the ancient fossil we've discovered and the river dolphins that still inhabit them today.

Unexpected Kinship

What truly astonishes scientists is that Pebanista yacuruna has no links to the river dolphins currently swimming in the very waters it once called home. Its closest living relative resides 10,000 kilometers away in southeast Asia. The fossil's uniqueness lies not only in its size but also in its isolation from its modern counterparts.

Discovery and Delay

The fossil was first unearthed by Benites-Palomino during a 2018 expedition along the Napo River in Peru. Initially, he spotted a fragment of jaw, and as soon as he recognized the teeth sockets, he exclaimed, "This is a dolphin!" The revelation that this giant belonged to a different lineage than the Amazon river pink dolphin was both surprising and intriguing.

Preserving the Past

As we marvel at the ancient giant's story, we must also recognize the shared challenge faced by river dolphins worldwide. Their survival hangs in the balance, and understanding the past can help us protect their future.

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