Monday, April 15, 2013

Return to the Caribbean side of Panama, pt. 2

A couple of Friday's ago, we were set to return to the locality where we had been excavating a relatively large whale skull. Last time we were there we manage to make the jacket around the skull, but the plaster did not dry quickly enough, and we had to leave it, as it was late in the day and the tide was coming in. Unfortunately, due to the change in time of the low tide (happening later and later in the day) as well as other technical problems, we could not go back as soon as we wanted. So we ended up waiting a whole week to return and hopefully finish the job.
A local girl, Pedro, Nicole and Samantha pose next to the jacket.
To our surprise, the jacket held up during the eight days that passed since we made it. Those were good news as it meant that our work and effort from the previous week was not lost and that we didn't had to make a new jacket. Plaster bandages are hard if not impossible to get here in Panama, so I was extremely happy we didn't had to use more than we already had.

Pedro, a local kid, Erik, Nicole and Samantha happily pose next to the large jacket as we get ready to move it to the truck.
We were able to remove the jacket and get it into our truck without further incidents, this wouldn't have been possible without the interns who are doing a great job! To top it off, we even found another tooth associated with the skull. Its not the first one, Aaron had already collected two, which were somewhat incomplete, but hinted at the affinities of the skull. The new tooth we collected is complete, and I can now confidently say that it belongs to a physeterid (a sperm whale)!! Sperm whales are found nowadays in the Caribbean, but their fossil record in the region is relatively poor, with only a handful of reports from a few sites. So this is a fantastic find!
One of the teeth associated with the skull in the jacket. Notice the large root and small enameled crown (to the left of the photo).

Stay tuned, as I'm sure we'll keep finding many other interesting fossils here in Panama.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Return to the Caribbean side of Panama

As part of the PCP-PIRE we not only get to look for fossils and study the geology of Panama along the canal. We also get to prospect and collect at other localities. Yesterday, we made the two hour drive to the Caribbean side of the country, where late Miocene marine units are exposed along the beach. If this sounds familiar, is because I had been there a couple of years ago, where, as part of the Pyenson Lab we went to collect a really nice fossil dolphin skull.

On our way to the locality we had to go through the Gatún Lock, and wait for several ships to go through before we could cross.
Going to this locality means we have to really plan ahead, as the late Miocene deposits will be best exposed at low tides. That also means that we only have about a four hour window to prospect and collect.
As the water recedes, the rock is exposed and its time to prospect!!
Ideally, we can find and collect specimens on a single day (within that 4 hour window), others may take longer, and require to return to the site one or more additional days.

Here Samantha and Pedro work on a project they stated with Aaron several months ago, excavating a large whale skull.
We worked two sites simultaneously this day. Pedro, Samantha and Erik continued an excavation they started several months ago with Aaron. They are digging around what seems to be a large whale skull. Nicole and I were about 15-20 meters southwest of where they were. We were busy digging what seems to be part of yet another whale skull. The skull seems to be broken or at least there's a skull and postcranial elements associated with it, so we collected these in two jackets (see picture below).

Here we take a break and have some snacks and talk with the local kids while the two small plaster jackets (center of the pictures) dry out so we can remove them and take them back to the lab.
We'll go back today to finish off the large whale skull, and who knows what else we'll find. So stay tuned!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fossil Mammals of Panama

In recent years the efforts to know the fossil terrestrial vertebrates of Panama have been revitalized, in part thanks to the expansion of the canal and the efforts of Panama Canal Project-PIRE in collaboration with the Panama Canal Authority. Vegetation grows fast in the tropics, so good fossiliferous deposits are covered and basically lost within years, even months, of being exposed. The new cuts being made for the expansion of the canal offer a unique opportunity to further understand the geology and paleontology of the area.
Interest in the fossil vertebrates of Panama started when Robert H. Stewart, a geologist with the Panama Canal Company, alongside his assistant, started finding and collecting fossil vertebrate remains in the early 1960's. The fossils were being collected from sediments of the Cucaracha Formation exposed along the Gaillard Cut, one of the artificial valleys that was crucial to the making of the canal. Frank C. Whitmore Jr. (who sadly passes away a little more than a year ago) was then a paleontologist with the US Geological Survey (and expert on fossil mammals) and eventually got involved with the collecting and studying of the Panamanian fossil. He and Stewart published the results of their study in 1965 (Whitmore & Stewart, 1965). Prior to these discoveries, very little was known of the fossil vertebrate fauna of the Central American region, and these were actually the first Miocene fossils found between Honduras and Colombia (Whitmore & Stewart, 1965). Up to that point it was not known wether Central America had been separated from North or South America (some even said both) during the Cenozoic, and if so, for how long? So the discovery of Miocene terrestrial mammals in Panama was a big deal!
The Gaillard Cut and Centenario Bridge in the early morning.
One of the main results of Whitmore & Stewart's study was that the Miocene Panamanian fauna was of holarctic* affinities. That meant that at least through the early Miocene, Panama was connected to North America, even though its geographically much closer to northwestern South America**. The fauna studied by them consisted of turtles, crocodylians, horses, rhinos, oreodonts and protoceratids (which I mentioned in a previous post). The mammal assemblage of this fauna is very similar to coeval faunas in North America.
*a term used for the biogeographic region comprising the northern continents.
**we now know that they remained separated by a marine passageway known as the Central American Seaway until about 3 million years ago (Duque-Caro, 1990; Coates et al., 1992).
Another closer look at the Gaillard Cut. Here you can see sediments of the Cucaracha Formation with Centenario Bridge in the Background.
The fauna described by Whitmore & Stewart was eventually called the Gaillard Cut Local Fauna (Ferrusquía-Villafranca, 1978; Rich & Rich, 1983; MacFadden, 2006). However, the fossils that make up this fauna had not been described in detail. It wasn't until until Bruce MacFadden of the Florida Museum of Natural History took on the task of describing them, 40 years after they had been collected (MacFadden, 2006). As a result, the composition of the Gaillard Cut Local Fauna has changed due to new discoveries, and will most likely continue to do so in the upcoming years. So, stay tuned as I'll cover this subject on the next post.

*Access to this and all other paleontological localities along the canal brought to you thanks to the courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).


Coates, A. G., J. B. C. Jackson, L. S. Collins, T. M. Cronin, H. J. Dowsett, L. M. Bybell, P. Jung, and J. A. Obando. 1992. Closure of the Isthmus of Panama: the near-shore marine record of Costa Rica and western Panama. GSA Bulletin 104:814-828.

Duque-Caro, H. 1990. Neogene stratigraphy, paleoceanography and paleobiogeography in northwestern South America and the evolution of the Panama Seaway. Plaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 77:203-234.

Ferrusquía-Villafranca, I. 1978. Distribution of Cenozoic vertebrate faunas in middle America and the problems of migrations between North and South America. Instituto de Geología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 101:193-329.

MacFadden, B. J. 2006. North American Miocene land mammals from Panama. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26:720-734.

Rich, P. V., and T. H. Rich. 1983. The Central American dispersal route: biotic history and paleogeography; pp. 12-34 in D. H. Janzen (ed.), Costa Rican Natural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Whitmore, Jr., F. C., and R. H. Stewart. 1965. Miocene mammals and Central American Seaways. Science 148:180-185.