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Creation 45(2):14–17, April 2023

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Transatlantic rafting monkeys

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CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic | Cliff (flickr.com/photos/28567825@NO3) | Wikimedia CommonCallithrix-geoffroyi
Figure 1. Geoffroy’s Tufted-eared Marmoset (Callithrix geoffroyi), thought to be similar to the extinct Ucayalipithecus perdita. It is in the family Callitrichidae, which with the four families below makes up the Ceboidea, the only living superfamily in the parvorder Platyrrhiini (New World monkeys, found in Mexico, Central and South America).

Researchers publishing in Science1 have recently suggested a startling idea to explain some intriguing fossil evidence. Specifically, marmoset-like monkeys rafted across the Atlantic Ocean from North Africa to South America, supposedly about “35 million years ago”. Why did they come to this conclusion? Because of nearly identical teeth found in both locations.

The fact that secular researchers are talking about rafting is very interesting. For many years, evolutionists challenged creationists by claiming that the patterns of animal distribution worldwide could not be explained by animals migrating after the Flood. Land bridges exposed by lower sea levels in the post-Flood Ice Age helped answer some of these challenges, but it still required animals to migrate across significant stretches of open ocean. In some instances, deliberate transport by humans in boats could be invoked. But more commonly, creationist researchers suggested that creatures could have travelled on natural ‘rafts’.

The evolutionist response was usually to mock this idea, and instead to claim that biogeography supported their continental drift scenarios. But over time, it has been realized that evolutionists/long-agers are left with many of the same biogeographical puzzles, and so are increasingly turning to animal rafting as the solution.

In this latest example, the evidence consists of four tiny molar teeth of an extinct variety of small monkey (Ucayalipithecus perdita) thought to be similar to modern marmosets (figure 1). These were discovered in river sediments in Amazonian Peru. The teeth were “almost identical” (in size, shape, and distinctive ridges) to a similar species (Qatrania wingi) known from North African fossils (Egypt, Libya, and Tanzania). The report stated the findings were “entirely unexpected” and that without the fossil findings “it could not have been predicted”1 that African monkeys were living alongside Peruvian ones. It also mentions other instances of transatlantic animal migration, specifically New World monkeys2 and rodents similar to capybaras. All these animals, the report states, must have travelled across the Atlantic on rafts of vegetation.

DNA dating dilemmas

The Science report dates the Ucayalipithecus monkey fossils to c. 35 million years. This was not achieved by directly dating the teeth, but by using computer analysis.3 The researchers estimated the fossils’ age by measuring DNA differences in 11 Peruvian and North African fossil monkey teeth thought to be from the same geological era (early Oligocene) (figure 2). A hypothetical evolutionary tree (nested phylogenetic diagram) was produced, depicting the supposed divergence of the South American species from the North African species over time. Such techniques assume deep time and millions of years of evolutionary change at the outset, and often produce contradictory results.4

Furthermore, it stretches credulity to think DNA can last that long.5 The supposed date of the fossils, according to the researchers, implied that the global ocean level was lower (associated with Antarctic glaciation) during this period. This likely meant the journey distance was not as far (1,450 km, 900 miles), compared to today’s distance (around 2,850 km, 1,770 miles).6

Transatlantic rafting? Seriously!

Away from the academic Science report, the tone was rather different; the researchers were free to express their surprise at their findings when interviewed by various news outlets. For instance, lead author Erik Seiffert7 stated:

The thing that strikes me about this study more than any other I’ve been involved in is just how improbable all of it is [including finding the fossils in their present location] … the fact that we’re revealing this very improbable journey that was made by these early monkeys, it’s all quite remarkable.8

Seiffert confessed his disbelief that animals could raft across entire oceans:

I have to admit that I was much more skeptical about rafting until I saw a video of mats of vegetation floating down the Panama Canal, with trees upright and maybe even fruiting …6

For interested readers the video is well worth watching, which shows upright trees floating down river.9 He also stated to another journalist:

This is a completely unique discovery … It shows that in addition to the New World monkeys and a group of rodents known as caviomorphs—there is this third lineage of mammals that somehow made this very improbable transatlantic journey to get from Africa to South America.10

Another researcher, Ellen Miller,11 stated:

I think everyone kind of shakes their heads at primates rafting long or even moderate distances …6

Miller also recognized other rafting events happened in history, and even happen today.

The implications of this research should be a game-changer in primate biogeography … I think more researchers will become interested in modelling these events … we know this [rafting] happens, so under what circumstances might we expect it to occur?6 

Evolutionary biologist Alan de Queiriz told IFLScience:

It is one of the most bizarre examples of what looks like an ocean crossing … . Initially a lot of people were kind of incredulous, they didn’t think that it was likely that something like a monkey could cross the Atlantic Ocean.12

Rafts or floating islands?

Just to be clear, no one is suggesting these monkeys lashed logs together and sailed the ocean blue. No, the ‘rafts’ proposed are naturally produced masses of floating vegetation, likely formed by severe storms ripping up and floating the material, according to researcher Alexandre Antonelli:13

I would assume that those rafts were pretty dramatic events … It could have been a tsunami or a really big storm. So I don’t think they were having a good time on the island. But it probably was pretty fast and dramatic.12

In other words, the researchers believe huge storms swept chunks of forest out to sea, along with the monkeys and everything else that happened to be there at the time. Queiriz told IFLScience:

Years ago, we spotted one [floating raft] in the Atlantic that measured about 840 square meters (9,000 square feet) in size. It was seen in two places 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) apart, meaning it had survived a pretty long time. This is not even the biggest raft that has been found. … It’s the dirt and the roots that are holding it together … So it makes this pretty substantial island … if the raft is big enough and has all kinds of vegetation on it, there could be enough food for a group of monkeys to actually survive …12 

In fact, a recent paper described the observation of a floating island 80 m across on a Columbian river with actual monkeys living in trees that were growing up to 10 m (30 ft) tall14. IFLScience suggests floating islands supported upright trees and that they “could act as sails, carrying the island at speeds above that of just the ocean current, reducing the time any animals aboard would need to survive.”12 

IFLScience cites the research of Alain Houle, from the University of Montreal, who calculated that under such conditions, the journey from Africa to South America may have taken as little as two weeks.12 So the idea of transatlantic ‘primate conquistadors’ may not be so far-fetched after all!

fossil-teeth
Figure 2. Fossil teeth from 11 monkey species (A–M) from Africa and Peru (credit: Seiffert, E.R. et al.).

Rafting predicted by the Flood model

These fascinating findings are no surprise when the Flood is factored in. CMI has previously reported on natural rafting of animals15 including New World monkeys.16 Such rafting events would be expected because of the vast amounts of vegetation (also floating volcanic pumice) left from the Flood. This would have often been in the form of huge log mats, as were observed after the eruption of Mt St Helens, which would have circulated the oceans for many decades.

It has been found that the pattern of biodiversity on either side of the Atlantic and Pacific continents coincides with the regions of their coasts impinged upon by prevailing water currents. This neatly explains the occurrence of identical species of plants and animals (including amphibians, reptiles, and mammals) in far-flung parts of the globe.17

The rafting events, however, may not all have involved storms. Some animals migrating away from Noah’s Ark may have walked onto islands of vegetation adjoining shorelines, which were subsequently washed out to sea as discussed by longstanding creationist researcher Mike Oard.16,18

All of these observations that secularists are now invoking to overcome their own challenges add to, inform, and confirm post-Flood rafting models. What secular rafting models lack is the scope provided by the Flood to produce the vast amounts of raft material required to account for the biogeography seen around the world.

Rafted or swept into place?

We need to remember that this specific instance does not concern where animals live today, but rather the fossils of extinct animals. So it is always possible that the now-fossilized monkey remains may have been transported to their present location and buried in sediments laid down by the retreating waters near the end of the Flood. Some of the evidence from the report suggests the fossil teeth are from Flood (not post-Flood) deposits:

… the Santa Rosa locality is more than 4,000 km [nearly 2,500 miles] from the easternmost point of South America and far from any coastal area that could have served as the initial docking point for the ancestors of Ucayalipithecus after their transatlantic dispersal.1 

This means these particular monkeys did not raft to the South American coast, from where they reproduced and migrated (radiated) inland, as proposed by Science. What is significant is that researchers are seriously considering transatlantic rafting events, and are observing and discussing evidence in favour of this.

Conclusion

Creationists have long discussed rafting as one of the means by which animals migrated post-Flood.19 Earlier evolutionist mocking of this proposal has been replaced by secular researchers taking it seriously in order to overcome problems in their own evolutionary models. Their discussions of the latest evidences help inform creationist raft models. Upright trees would have acted like sails, enabling the rafts to cross intercontinental oceans relatively quickly. These trees likely sustained the raft inhabitants with food for their journey.

Posted on homepage: 17 June 2024

References and notes

  1. Seiffert, E.R., et. al. A parapithecid stem anthropoid of African origin in the Paleogene of South America, Science 368:194–197, 2020. Return to text.
  2. These include five families of flat-nosed primates that are found in South and Central America today, see illustrations p. 15. Return to text.
  3. Zhang, C., Molecular clock dating using MrBayes, Vertebrata PalAsiatica 57(3):241–252, 2019. Return to text.
  4. Tomkins, J., and Bergman, J., Incomplete lineage sorting and other ‘rogue’ data fell the tree of life, J. Creation 27(3):84–92, 2013; creation.com/rogue-data. Return to text.
  5. Thomas, B. and Tomkins, J., How reliable are genomes from ancient DNA? J. Creation 28(3):92–98, 2014; creation.com/ancient-genomes. Return to text.
  6. Black, R., More than 30 million years ago, monkeys rafted across the Atlantic to South America, smithsonianmag.com, 9 Apr 2020. Return to text.
  7. Professor of Clinical Integrative Anatomical Sciences at Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, USA. Return to text.
  8. Hunt, K., Crew of prehistoric monkeys rafted across the Atlantic to South America, cnn.com, 9 Apr 2020. Return to text.
  9. Note the upright trees floating down river, TheLongboardman, Panama flooding, Dec 8, 2010; youtu.be/_OwfGunvPXA. Return to text.
  10. Duncan, C., Prehistoric monkeys rafted from Africa to South America on floating islands of vegetation, study claims, independent.co.uk, 10 Apr 2020. Return to text.
  11. Wake Forest University paleoprimatologist. Return to text.
  12. O’Callaghan, J., The incredible story of the monkeys that rafted across the world, iflscience.com, 25 Mar 2018. Return to text.
  13. Professor in Systematics and Biodiversity at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Return to text.
  14. Ali, J.R. et al., Monkeys on a freefloating island in a Columbian river: further support for overwater colonization, Biogeographia—J. Integrative Biogeography 36(a005):1–8, 2021. Return to text.
  15. Statham, D., Natural rafts carried animals around the globe, Creation 33(2):54–55, 2011; creation.com/animals-on-rafts. Return to text.
  16. Oard. M., Post-Flood log mats potentially can explain biogeography, J. Creation 28(3):19–22, 2014; creation.com/log-mats-biogeography. Return to text.
  17. Statham, D., Phytogeography and zoogeography—rafting vs continental drift, J. Creation 29(1):80–87, 2015; creation.com/distribution-of-plants-and-animals. Return to text.
  18. Oard, M., Log mats solve many geological riddles, Creation 45(1):40–43, 2023; creation.com/log-mats. Return to text.
  19. Ice Age land bridges are another important key to understanding animal migration post-Flood, see: Oard, M.J. Land bridges after the Flood, J. Creation 34(3):109–117, 2020; creation.com/land-bridges-after-the-flood. Return to text.