Workers unearth rich fossil finds as they widen the Panama Canal

Paleontologists working along the construction site of the expanding Panama Canal are discovering a treasure trove of valuable riches that no pirate would have thought to plunder. As construction equipment excavate large areas next to where the new channel will be built and dredge the existing canal, paleontologists working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and funded by the Panama Canal Authority, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and a private donor comb the upturned terrain for fossils that provide valuable clues to the natural history of this Panamanian isthmus.

Emergence of the isthmus of Panama created the Caribbean Sea

Exciting discoveries about this important area of Central America are changing previous geological assumptions about when the Caribbean Sea was formed:

“…the group has determined that the isthmus between North America and South America began rising approximately 21 million year ago, not 3.5 million, as had been commonly thought. This means that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans split apart—and the flora and fauna of the two continents coalesced—earlier than assumed. “Geological history is far more complex than what we had been thinking until now,” says Carlos Jaramillo, a staff scientist at the STRI.

When the isthmus emerged and halted the exchange of water between the Atlantic and the Pacific, salinity in the former rose, depleting the Caribbean of certain nutrients, making the water more crystalline and giving birth to the coral reefs for which the sea is known. This denser water helped give rise to the global ocean conveyor belt, in which warm, fresh water is transported north and cooler salty water flows south of the equator and on to Antarctica, where it warms the cold bottom waters and helps them rise to the surface. The system distributes heat and moisture around the planet.”

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Opening this year, the Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City will house many of the fossil artifacts discovered in the region including an impressive 6-million-year-old skeleton of a marlin that was found in the area of the canal expansion, while large amounts of other fossil fragments and shells will be cataloged and stored in a nearby warehouse for research and study.  Thanks to the efforts of Jaramillo, the collection will also include fossils uncovered from excavations at a large hydroelectric project in Santander, Colombia.