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.

1 comment:

  1. Great project and blog. Can't wait to find out what they discover about the land bridge between the Americas. If this part of the world essentially separated the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans so many millions of years ago, rerouting currents including creating the Gulf Stream that is so important to us humans, what are the ramifications of climate change/sea level rise in the region and the seas it separates? Hope it is a great trip.