Africa-Europe exchange of faunas in the Late Miocene

The extremely hazardous seaway through the Straits of Gibraltar and the waterless deserts of the Levant presented considerable barriers to natural exchange of animal groups between Africa and Eurasia throughout the period of hominin evolution known from the African Pliocene and Pleistocene record. These barriers were breached by hominins only occasionally.  Through most of the Miocene  and back to the Mesozoic Era Iberia and what is now Morocco were separated by a wide seaway preventing faunal exchange. That Betic Seaway eventually closed with the tectonic collision of the two sides to form the modern Betic cordillera in southern Spain towards the end of the Miocene. This left parts of the Mediterranean to evaporate during what is known as the Messinian Salinity Crisis, which reached completion at 5.59 Ma. Yet this Europe-Africa connection was short-lived, being breached by what is regarded as one of the most dramatic events in Cenozoic history: the Zanclean Flood. At 5.33 Ma the Atlantic burst through what is now the Straits of Gibraltar to refill the Mediterranean Basin within a period between a few months and two years. The flooding began as a vast system of rapids some 1 km high with an estimated flow a thousand times that of the modern Amazon.

The Strait of Gibraltar (North is to the left:...

Strait of Gibraltar from space, with Spain on the left and Morocco on the right.) (credit: Wikipedia)

During the existence of the Europe-Africa land bridge it was possible for animals to move between north-west Africa and western Europe. Evidence that such an exchange did take place comes from a number of Late Miocene localities in southern Spain and North Africa. The first recorded migrants into Spain were African gerbils, then evidence mounted for larger animals, including hippos and early camels moving into Europe and a reverse migration of rabbits and mice. One of the Spanish sites (Gibert, L. et al. 2013. Evidence for an African-Iberian mammal dispersal during the pre-evaporitic Messinian. Geology, v. 41, p. 691-694) has allowed precise magnetostratigraphic dates to be put on the migrations. The Spanish-US team suggests conditions ripe for migration were in three distinct phases: around 6.3 Ma when hippos managed to swim to Europe; around 6.2 Ma which saw European small mammals making the journey south and camels moving to Europe; in a 300 ka window of opportunity from 5.6 to 5.3 Ma for African mice to make the journey into Europe. Several distinct episodes probably reflect some ups and downs of sea level related to glacial retreats and advances in Antarctica.

One implication of the short-lived Messinian land bridge is that it may have been followed by primates, though evidence has yet to be found. A particularly interesting genus, suggested by some as a possible common ancestor for hominins and chimpanzees, is Oreopithecus a bipedal ape recorded from the Miocene of  Italy


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