The final closure of the Isthmus of Panama at ∼3.5 Ma divided the American tropical ocean into two separate and different oceanographic regions. Consequences for the marine biota were profound, but, hitherto, correlation of the Pacific and Caribbean coastal sections has not been precise enough to track biologic patterns. We present here a correlation of 31 sections from the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica and western Panama. Using calcareous nannofossils and planktonic foraminifera at both the tops and bottoms of each formation, we estimate that the Caribbean section ranges from 8.2 Ma to 1.7 Ma; and the Pacific sequence, from 3.6 Ma to <1.7 Ma. These intervals bracket postulated dates for final closure of the Isthmus and provide the first well-dated record of middle and late Pliocene faunas from the region.

The Caribbean and Pacific sections include very different environments of deposition, yet there is sufficient overlap and diversity of habitats to permit meaningful biological comparisons. On the Caribbean side, formations tied together by the overlap of the upper Pliocene markers Sphenolithus abies and Pseudoemiliana lacunosa (3.5 Ma to 3.6 Ma) range from very shallow to shallow inner shelf (<200 m) and upper slope (200-800 m). The Pacific coast sections were mostly deposited in a trench slope environment, which is absent on the Caribbean side. These sections fortuitously include abundant thick intra-formational slumps containing shallow-water fauna more appropriate for biological comparison with the Caribbean biota. Similarly, the ∼1.9 Ma to 1.5 Ma interval, well constrained by various taxa, includes middle- to outer-shelf, and inner-shelf to upper-slope deposits on the Caribbean side, and marginal-marine to inner-shelf deposits on the Pacific coast.

Using our new biostratigraphic framework to correlate previously poorly constrained mollusc collections, we show that evolutionary divergence of the Pacific and Caribbean near-shore marine faunas had occurred by 3.5 Ma. This strongly suggests that the Isthmus was effectively closed by this time.

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