Nearshore Americas

The Panama Canal’s Stunning New Discoveries

The ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal has brought to light fossils of animals that lived in the region millions of years ago. Paleontologists have started calling them ‘a treasure trove’ because the fossils are packed with a lot of information about earth and its inhabitants.

The exploration of the treasure trove has surprised scientists because the fossils have told the tale of animals that we never knew existed.

Moreover, it is the case of history repeating itself. When the Panama Canal was first built a hundred years ago, scientists had uncovered a huge array of fossils that depicted various aspects of animal life in this region. Now a multi-billion dollar project to widen the Canal is set to reveal new secrets about the creation of the Panama Isthmus that changed the world.

The creation of the Panama Isthmus – the narrow land bridge that joins the two continents – wreaked havoc on land, sea and air. It triggered extinctions, diverted ocean currents and transformed climate.

The 80km long Canal, first built in 1914, connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Canal is so important passage for ships that it helps them avoid the treacherous 8,000 mile journey round Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.

According to the latest discoveries, animals such as miniature horses, tiny camels and huge predators called  bear dogs roamed the area. These animals, according to scientists, have either become extinct or evolved into some other form of animals that we see today.

Fossils obtained by the scientists talk about small camels lived in the region. The camel’s physical feature has taken the scientists by surprise. They had no hump and they stood just two feet tall. Interestingly, the camel’s tooth structure looked to be the same as crocodile’s.

Soon after the Canal work began in March 2012, scientists stumbled upon the fossils of ancient marlins and turtles.

Millions of Years

Given the findings, the region was full of immovable plants about 40 million years ago,  and about 20 million years ago slow-moving turtles roamed the area.

The agile and fast-moving mammals came thousands of years later. Scientists are of the belief that these fast-moving animals spread around the world about 1.5 million years ago.

The tiny camels, according to scientists, originated in Florida and Texas area and they gradually moved to other parts of the world, including the Panama region. These camels ate a variety of plants and there is every possibility of them having evolved into llamas and guanacos that we see today.

For scientists, fossils found near the Panama Canal are proving to be a great source of surprise as well as confusion. None of the fossils found be less than four million year old.  And for scientists, the time is fast running out. They are learn everything about the fossils before the canal expansion work comes to an end. Once the construction work completes in 2015, the fossils may get buried in the seabed.

Another surprising factor is the condition of the fossils. Most of the fossils are in good condition and that’s mainly due to the volcanic ash they had been covered in.

History of Earth

The Panama Canal expansion also throws light on another interesting piece of earth’s history; the merger of North and South Americas, which took place about three million years ago. Many consider this event as an important milestone in the history of the earth.

With Panama Canal located strategically on the land bridge that connects north and south Americas, scientists believe that they have a perfect opportunity to know more about this important milestone in the history of the earth.

With the merging of land of north and south Americas, the animals on both continents had opportunity to move to a foreign land. As new, powerful animals started invading each other’s territory, small, helpless animals found themselves on the wrong side of evolution. Many animals could not outlive this onslaught and became extinct. Now, with the availability of fossils in the Panama Canal, geologists hope to discover more about the animals that once roamed this planet.

Sign up for our Nearshore Americas newsletter:

Although the geologists are having a field day unearthing new fossils, that was obviously not the plan of the Panama government in funding this project. Currently, the 51-mile passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans can allow boats that can carry up to 65,000 tons of cargo. But today’s mega ships, which carry loads up to 300,000 tons, require the Canal to be widened further.

That means the scientists have to be one step ahead of the Panama government and should collect all the available fossils before this wonderful window to the history of the earth is closed again.

Narayan Ammachchi

News Editor for Nearshore Americas, Narayan Ammachchi is a career journalist with a decade of experience in politics and international business. He works out of his base in the Indian Silicon City of Bangalore.

Add comment