Friday, July 19, 2013


The BioMuseo roofline echoes the graceful curves of the Bridge of the Americas
across the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

George Angehr is a world-class ornithologist, but he's also a world-class museum creator. On the same day he led us a fascinating walk along the birding paradise of Pipeline Road, he also introduced us to his crowning achievement, the soon-to-open BioMuseo in Panama City. Angehr is Curator of Exhibitions for the BioMuseo.

George Angehr (left) and University of Florida paleontologist Bruce MacFadden.

BioMuseo is located on the Amador Causeway at the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal. The building was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. It's colorful roof is visible for miles and is said to mimic the plumage of the country's many tropical birds.

The museum is divided into eight galleries that explain the origin of the Isthmus of Panama and its huge impact on the planet's biodiversity. They are:

Gallery of Biodiversity -- A ramp will welcome visitors to the world of natural science and the explosion of life in Panama.

Panamarama -- A projection space on three levels and 10 screens immerses the visitor in an audiovisual presentation of the natural wonders of Panama's ecosystems.

Building the Bridge -- The tectonic forces inside the Earth that formed the isthmus are represented by three 14-foot-high sculptures.

When Worlds Collide -- When the isthmus was closed, there was a great exchange of species between North and South America. A stampede of animal sculptures illustrate the movement of 72 species north and south across the isthmus beginning nearly 3 million years.

Human Path -- In a partially open space, 16 columns tell the story of humans on the isthmus, from prehistoric times to the present.

Oceans Divided -- When Panama emerged, two very different oceans were formed, changing lives all over the Earth. Two multi-story aquariums will illustrate how the Pacific and the Caribbean evolved separately because of the isthmus.

The Living Web -- A huge sculpture representing a fig tree will illustrate how plants and animals are interconnected.

Panama is the Museum -- The land around the museum will be a botanical park which will link the museum with the rest of the country.

The first five galleries are schedule to open in January 2014.

The University of Florida has been a major partner in the development of the exhibits for the BioMuseo. UF's Panama Canal Project PIRE has been collaborating with BioMuseo for the past three years, providing them with fossil casts for display in some of the galleries. The Florida Museum of Natural History is also providing a giant Megalodon shark jaw to BioMuseo on long-term loan.

Birding in Paradise

During World War II the United States constructed an oil pipeline from the Pacific to the Atlantic sides of the Panama Canal to ensure a steady supply of fuel in the event of an attack by the Japanese or the Germans. That attack never came and after the war the road along the pipeline gained a reputation as one of the best birding sites in the Americas. In 1999 the canal was turned over to Panama, which has protected all of the land around the road.

It's not often that you get to explore a place with the person who actually wrote the book on it. But that's what we got to do today, walking Pipeline Road with George Angehr, author of “The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide." Over the course of two hours, we saw many species of birds, including trogons, toucans, antbirds and flycatchers. In addition we were treated to howler monkeys, a pygmy three-toed sloth and a brigade of army ants.

Angehr's encyclopedic knowledge was evident from the moment we stepped onto the road. Within minutes he was whistling in perfect unison with the birds in the forest and we were following his pointing finger to branches high in the canopy.

Pygmy three-toed sloth Photo: Jeff Gage

Army ants on patrol. Photo: Jeff Gage

George Angehr Photo: Jeff Gage

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barro Colorado Island

Photo: STRI

Today we're off to Barro Colorado Island. Here's some background from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which manages this world wildlife treasure in the middle of Lake Gatun, the central waterway of the Panama Canal.

The view from the veranda at Barro Colorado Island.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Life in Science

Almost 40 years into a distinguished career as a paleontologist at the University of Florida, Bruce MacFadden will be the first to admit that his interests have moved in recent years toward science education and the training of the next generation of scientists. It is what motivated him to develop the Panama Canal Project PIRE through the National Science Foundation.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still like to get his hands dirty occasionally. Today, he gave a clinic in how to collect rock samples, and it was fascinating.

One of MacFadden’s scientific interests is paleomagnetism, the study of the record of the Earth's magnetic field in rocks. Paleomagnetic rocks are extremely useful to paleontologists because they enables them to precisely date the fossils in those rocks.

So MacFadden’s goal was to collect rock samples to test for their paleomagnetism. After carefully scoping out an appropriate site, MacFadden went to work, armed with a pick axe, a hammer, a chisel, a knife and a compass. Wielding the pick axe, he dug away the soft clay around a promising sample. Then he was ready to take some measurements. Key to determining paleomagnetism is precisely measuring the sample’s orientation relative to magnetic north. Using a special Brunton compass, he oriented the sample to north, writing the compass reading right on the rock. Finally, he used the hammer and chisel to pop the sample from the wall.

Over the course of two hours, MacFadden collected 10 samples from two sites. The carefully wrapped rocks will be shipped to the UF geology department in Gainesville, where their magnetic fields will be measured.

MacFadden’s field notebook is testament to his scientific process. The current version, in use since 2002, reflects his travels throughout the Americas. Inside, are measurements and drawings in neat, precise handwriting. Each follows a convention he has developed over his career. In this case, the first sample from the first site he has collected in 2013 was marked 13-01-A, the second sample was 13-01-B, and so on.

The work was hard and MacFadden was soon soaked with sweat and covered with muddy clay. But he was clearly in his element.

A few hours later, a freshly showered MacFadden was in his other element, presenting a lecture to a hundred faculty and students of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute about the use of horse fossils in museums to illustrate evolution. MacFadden argues that many museums, including some of the largest in the United States, have done a poor job of illustrating the complicated evolution of the horse and thereby contributing to public misunderstanding of evolution in general.

Photos: Jeff Gage

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fossil Hunters

The Gatun Formation.

Fossil hunters see things differently from the rest of us. Where we see shells, they see teeth. Where we see wood, they see bone. This special skill was apparent during a trip to the Gatun Formation, one of the richest marine fossil sites on Earth.

As I looked around, I saw a lot of fossils, but to my untrained eye they looked like so many shells on the beach. Shark teeth are different, we were told. They were darker and shinier. We’d know them when we saw them, they said. So I looked. I got down low, scanning the ground for something that looked different. For a while, nothing. Then I saw it. A shiny brown tooth sitting on a small mound of dirt among thousands of white turritella shells, among the most abundant of fossils. Eureka!

My shark tooth find. Photo: Rob Hoffman

I brought my find to graduate student Catalina Pimiento, whose research is on the giant Megalodon sharks that once roamed the oceans here. She has a special knack for identifying shark teeth, Bruce MacFadden says, and she quickly identified my find as a lemon shark, whose ancestors are common in the oceans off North and South America today.

Now I was on a roll. I knew what I was looking for. I was sure I would find more. Or not. I searched the ground for an hour without finding another tooth.

Meanwhile, postdoctoral researcher Jorge Velez had his own find on the other side of the Gatun site. Something that looked for all the world like a piece of scrap wood turned out to be a vertebrae from a prehistoric marlin. With great care, Jorge excavated his find, first stabilizing it with glue, then digging it out with a screwdriver and a hammer. Once freed from the surrounding rock, Jorge carefully wrapped it in toilet paper for transport back to the lab.

Post doctoral researcher Jorge Velez excavates a vertebrae from an ancient marlin species. Photo: Jeff Gage

Bruce MacFadden, Jorge Velez and Catalina Pimiento are fossil hunters. They see things where the rest of us don't.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Teachers In Action

Tonight I witnessed an amazing demonstration of teaching professionalism in action.

Presented with the challenge of developing a lesson plan for a field trip to a fossil site in the Panama Canal for a group of Spanish-speaking children they have never met, the seven teachers quickly determined what their educational objectives were and how they would achieve them.

Within minutes they had come up with a host of engaging activities to help the students understand geologic time, learn how scientists collect and share data, identify different species and compare them to living organisms.

Then they were on the floor, performing a test run of the lesson, each of them assuming the role of a typical student, anticipating the opportunities and challenges that the lesson would present and adapting it accordingly. They recognized when the students’ interest might lag, and built in new activities and games to keep their attention. They also determined the supplies they needed – string, plastic bags, pencils, a meter ruler – and sent a contingent out to get them, on a Sunday night, in an unfamiliar city, in an unfamiliar language.

In addition, they made sure to include the Panamanian teachers in the process. “If they work through this lesson with us, it will be theirs,” said one of them. “We will be giving them the gift of a lesson.”

This is what teachers do. They see an opportunity to educate and they run with it. Every American who has ever been asked to vote on a school bond referendum should have the opportunity to see this process in action.

To read a perspective on how the lesson went, go here

Video Visit

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Canopy Connection

A panoramic view of Panama City from atop the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Canopy Crane Access System.

Looking back toward the crane tower from our gondola on the rotating arm.

A bromeliad living on a tree branch high above the Parque National Metropolitano.

Looking up at STRI's Canopy Crane Access System.

In the late 1990s, an energetic University of Florida botany professor named Stephen Mulkey hauled eight 1,500-watt lamps 40 meters above the forest canopy near Panama City using the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Canopy Crane Access System. His goal was to trick the tree leaves into thinking they were in sunny El NiƱo conditions to see if they produced more fruit. Turns out, they did.

Today, I rode that very same crane into the canopy and saw a bromeliad from one of Stephen Mulkey's projects still flowering on a tree. When we returned to the ground, the crane operator told us that he regularly ferries faculty and students from UF into the canopy.

The experience reminded me that scientific research crosses many disciplinary boundaries. Bruce MacFadden is a paleontologist, but he was inspired to pursue research in Panama after a visit to STRI's facilities. The research program he has established in Panama with the support of the National Science Foundation offers opportunities for scientists, graduate students, undergraduates and school teachers with diverse scientific backgrounds to experience the Panamanian natural environment, whether it's using 20 million-year-old fossils or living flora and fauna.

Fact: The canopy crane at Parque Natural Metropolitano is located within a lowland semi-deciduous forest on the Pacific coast of the isthmus. This forest averages  about 68 inches of rain per year. The crane is 42 meters tall, with a boom length of 51 meters, and gives access to almost 1 hectare of forest and to approximately 80 species of trees and lianas.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Race Against the Jungle

UF paleontologist Bruce MacFadden (right) describes the different layers of rock at a dig site in the Panama Canal to teachers from the Santa Cruz, Cal. school district.

UF paleontologist Bruce MacFadden examines a fossilized pig tooth discovered during a dig in the Panama Canal.

Giant container ships make their way toward the Miraflores Lock on the Pacific Ocean side of the Panama Canal as UF researchers dig for fossils.

The paleontologists on the University of Florida Panama Canal Project are in a race against time. You wouldn't think a couple of months would make much difference to scientists who study fossils that are 20 million years old. But while geologic time is slow, the jungle is unrelenting.

To take advantage of the opportunity presented by the widening of the Panama Canal, Dr. Bruce MacFadden and his team have to move fast, because in less than a year, the exposed strata of rock left behind by the expansion project can be covered again by chigger-filled grasses that make the prospecting and digging process much harder.

So, even in the hottest days of the summer in this country so close to the equator, young people with a passion for discovery venture onto the rocks to look for fossils. They are led by Jorge Velez, a postdoctoral researcher whose intimate understanding about the geology of Panama informs his decisions about where to dig.

Using radioisotope dating techniques, MacFadden can determine the age of the rock with great accuracy, and therefore the age of the fossils in the rock.

It's clear that it takes a great deal of patience and extremely sharp eyes to do this kind of work. What looks like just another rock to the average observer turns out to be the fossilized tooth of a prehistoric pig. While some finds are large, like a camel jaw, many are almost microscopic, like tiny fish teeth or snails. But they are all part of a giant jigsaw puzzle that the researchers are painstakingly putting together in search of understanding about how life evolved in this important region of the planet.

While all of the fossils they find are the property of the people of Panama, the Panamanian government has authorized researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History and other museums around the country to take them back to their labs to be cleaned, cataloged, digitally recorded and studied.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Science Education

Here are some of the teachers from last year.
Stay tuned for photos of this year's group.

The education component of the 2013 edition of the Panama Canal Project is well under way. Dr. Bruce MacFadden and his team welcomed teachers from California and Florida to Panama for 10 days. Students are in for some exciting new classroom experiences based on the hands-on experiences their teachers are getting thanks to the Panama Canal Project -- PIRE.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Panama Bound

Bruce MacFadden,  curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of
Natural History and principal investigator on the Panama Canal Project.

UF Explore magazine editor Joe Kays will be in Panama July 11-20 with scientists from the Florida Museum of Natural History as they search for fossils during the expansion of the Panama Canal. 

The New World Tropics have 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. 

In 2008 Panama initiated a decade-long, $7 billion project to expand the canal. This expansion is providing a once-in-a-century opportunity to access new rock outcrops rich in fossil diversity. The project is expanding researchers’ understanding of global changes that occurred when the Isthmus of Panama formed, creating a land bridge between North America and South America. 

Fact: The Panama Canal expansion project began in 2007 and is estimated to be completed by 2015 at a cost of $5.3 billion. The expansion project will more than double the canal's capacity, enabling it to accommodate ships that are too large to traverse the existing canal. The United States and China are the top users of the canal.

Along the Panama Canal

Hiking down to La Cucaracha Formation by pcppire