The Panama Canal is currently being expanded on a scale not seen since the original excavations one hundred years ago. During this current expansion, important new Neogene fossiliferous deposits are being uncovered. The mission of the PCP PIRE is to advance knowledge of the extinct faunas and floras of the ancient Neotropics based on the new fossil discoveries along the Canal.

Consistent with NSF’s PIRE program objectives, university students (undergraduate and graduate), postdocs, and faculty are engaging in PCP paleontological, geological, and biological research and Broader Impacts outreach. The ultimate outcome of the PCP PIRE will be to promote discovery and advance knowledge while training the next generation of scientists better able to engage in international experiences.

Once in a Century Opportunity

The New World Tropics (NWT) today contain an extraordinarily high biodiversity that is threatened by global climate change, human impacts, and extinction. Little is known about when this biodiversity originated and how it evolved. During the initial excavations for the Panama Canal a century ago, the Smithsonian Institution made natural history and geological collections that documented modern and ancient biodiversity in the NWT. A century later, in 2007, Panama initiated extensive excavations to expand the Canal over the next decade. Consequently, highly fossiliferous deposits are now being uncovered that potentially yield important clues to ancient biodiversity. Over the next five to 10 years we will capitalize on these new excavations and develop a long-term international research and education program called “PCP” (Panama Canal Project = Proyecto del Canal de Panama).

International Collaboration

The PCP will include a diverse team of junior and senior Ph.D.-level investigators, and graduate and undergraduate students from several institutions from both the United States and Panama. The target group for the formal education includes U.S. and Panamanian students at University of Florida (UF), Florida State University – Panama (FSUP), and the Universidad de Panama (UP). They will have opportunities to take courses in biology, geology, and/or archaeology, and for those opting to pursue a new, nontraditional career track, also take “plus” courses in broader impacts, science education, and pedagogy. Postdoctoral fellows and PCP students will engage in research experiences and/or (as appropriate) teach about ancient biodiversity at one or more of the following: UF (Florida Museum of Natural History), New Mexico Museum of Natural History, FSUP, and UP. Project team members will be expected to improve their bilingual competency and ultimately be able to communicate research findings to both English- and Spanish-speaking audiences. Active recruitment and mentoring will result in a well-trained PCP team better positioned to effectively conduct and communicate science during their respective careers.

Research Goals

PCP is focused on discovery and research, including collection and analyses of new fossils and related geological specimens found at ongoing Canal excavations. Likewise, faculty and students from both the U.S. and Panamanian partner institutions will collaborate on related laboratory and museum studies. The overarching research theme is to precisely and systematically document the ancient marine and terrestrial biodiversity and global climate change of the New World Tropics (NWT) preserved in the 25-million-year fossiliferous sequence in Panama. Integrated methods of geochronology will calibrate this sequence and stable isotope geochemistry will document global climate change preserved in fossils. Given the otherwise poor exposures covered by dense vegetation, fossils are exceedingly rare from elsewhere in the NWT. Thus, the new excavations along the Canal provide a unique, time-sensitive (i.e., over the next several years) opportunity to facilitate discovery and advance knowledge.

These research goals will address such critical questions as

Outreach Goals

Undergraduates, Graduates, and Postdoctoral Fellows

Students and fellows will be intimately involved in both research and outreach with the PCP. Participants will learn to communicate and present their research bilingually. The PCP will work to remove geographic barriers with web-based and video-linked courses. Students wishing to participate in a non-traditional masters thesis or doctoral dissertation will conduct museum visitor research and evaluation. In addition, all graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows will participate in mentoring.

Traveling Exhibit Development

The PCP project team plans to develop a bilingual traveling exhibit available for museum venues in 2014 (the Canal centennial). This will also entail conducting front-end, formative, and summative evaluations. The traveling exhibit will also have a web-based component to be developed by the PCP team, will target both a K-12 audience and the general public.

Contributions to the Biomuseo

The Biomuseo will be a museum of biodiversity in Panama, scheduled to open in 2012. The PCP plans to be involved in the development of educational, exhibit, and web-based programs at this new institution.

Website Development

The website for this PIRE-funded project will be continually developed and improved upon during the course of the project. This will include research updates, discussion of outreach, and potentially blogs and social networking.

New Geosciences Major

One part of the PCP goals will be to participate in the establishment of a new Geosciences major at the Universidad de Panama. Ultimately, we hope to involve the VP students in field trips, social networking, research and outreach.