Between 2009 and 2016, the Panama Canal was expanded, providing an opportunity for researchers to excavate fossils at previously inaccessible. These fossils provide answers to questions about ancient ecosystems and climates, as well as the anatomy, behavior and physiology of ancient organisms.
Bruce MacFadden, Florida Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology speaks about the research and discoveries made possible by the collaborative Panama Canal Project (PCP).
Interview and videos produced by Jason Mathis for Explore Research at the University of Florida.
Bruce MacFadden: Right now we’re in the southern reaches of the Panama Canal, and this is important because the Republic of Panama is undertaking a huge excavation to expand the canal and to build a new series of locks, and we’re following along the excavations of the canal to collect fossils as part of the PIRE project.
The canal offers a unique opportunity to collect these fossils because the excavations that are currently going on have not been seen for over a century since the original excavations of the Canal, so this is what we’re calling a once in a century opportunity to advance scientific understanding of the ancient biodiversity that used to live in the tropics.
Panama is geographically very well situated because of the Isthmus of Panama was a corridor or bridge for animals that cross from the north to the south and from the south and north during what’s called the Great American Biotic Interchange.
We’re interested in the kinds of animals that lived in this area before the the formation of the bridge about 19 to 21 million years ago. That’s the age of the fossils that we’re finding from the outcrops exposed along the canal.
So the three ways that we collect fossils in the field: by surface prospecting. We just walk along the surface of the outcrop looking for a distinctive thing that’s weathering out. It might be a bone or shark’s tooth or a fragment of a sea urchin depending on where you are in the rock column.
The other is if you find a concentration of fossils in one area. We stay there and we we scoop out the rocks in this particular area; that’s called quarrying.
The third way of collecting fossils is by collecting up the sediment themselves and bringing them back to the laboratory and washing them through screens, and what that does is the sediment goes through the screens and the fossils are concentrated in the screens themselves.
Jonathan Bloch: Once we’ve collected fossils in the field, it’s important to bring them back to our collections for detailed study because it allows us to address questions about the ecology and past climate that these organisms lived in. It also allows us to look at their anatomy, physiology, and possibly past behaviors and all of this is useful to address possible future changes.
Fossils provide us with unique data that allow us to look at the pattern of evolution, the origin of species, and the extinction of species. Comparing species today to similar species in the past gives us information about the environment in which past organisms lived, for example water depth and climate variables, like temperature.
To realistically address questions about environmental and climatic change through time, particularly in the marine environment, we have to have large samples of invertebrate fossils, and the Panama Canal provides us with a unique window into that world.
It’s these types of questions that are being addressed by the Panama Canal project here at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Once we understand these ancient ecosystems we then can document how they changed as the Isthmus of Panama developed creating a land bridge and dividing the oceans.
Learn more about the Vertebrate Paleontology collection at the Florida Museum.
Learn more about the Panama Canal Project (PCP) PIRE