Fossil Friday 2/5/16: A hammerhead shark tooth

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UF 232587, a hammerhead (Sphyrna sp.) shark tooth. Photo © VP FLMNH.

This week’s Fossil Friday post showcases a hammerhead (Sphyrna sp.) shark tooth. This particular specimen is from the Milwhite Gunn Farm Mine site in Florida, but fossil hammerhead teeth have been found in the Gatún Formation in Las Lomas and the Chucunaque Formation in Lago Bayano. Hammerhead sharks are found worldwide today but are only found in the Caribbean in the fossil record.

To learn more about fossil hammerhead sharks from Panama, check out the “Fossils of Panama” page on hammerhead shark teeth here.

Landslides In The Canal

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Culebra Cut

A few weeks ago, when we were driving to one of our dig sites, we noticed a dip in the road that hadn’t been there the previous week. When we returned to the site the next week the dip was lower by at least six inches. The following week I decided driving down that road was not in our best interest but we wanted to investigate. We were able to document cracks and fissures that were several feet long and 4-12 inches wide. The next week there were men surveying the area and the week after that there were excavators and backhoes. I had read about the massive landslides during the construction of the canal and was aware that due to the geology of the area they are an ongoing problem. It was fascinating and I have to admit a bit disconcerting to watch the progression of the landslide and the remedial measures that were taken in response. I was so intrigued I did a little bit of research.


Landslides have always been a problem in the Panama Canal, most notably in the 13-km long section at the southern end of the canal known as the Culebra Cut (also known as Gaillard Cut). The special wonder of the canal is Culebra Cut. It cuts through the continental divide and is the high, hard rock basaltic slopes and the lower, soft shale/clay slopes of the Cucaracha and Culebra Formations that can be seen in picturesque photos of the canal. All the rain and humidity softens the shale into mud and clay. The instability of the mud and clay results in continual landslides. David McCullough in “Path Between The Seas”, his famous book about the building of the Panama Canal, states that all technical problems were small compared to the slides in the cut. Workers on the canal would arrive in the morning and months of digging, as well as equipment, would be completely wiped out by thousands of cubic yards of dirt and rock from slides. The massive slides in the cut also played a big part in the French Canal Company’s inability to complete the canal.
In 1915 the second year of operation, the canal was hit with two major landslides that struck simultaneously. Both the east side and west side of the Culebra Formation slid, resulting in the closure of the canal for seven months. In 1986 a geotechnical advisory board was formed after a major reactivation of the East Cucaracha slide encroached into the navigational channel of the canal and caused a closure of twelve hours.
In 1988 a report was issued by Luis D. Alfaro on the risk of landslides in Gaillard Cut. He researched all of the slide events that were documented up to 1986, thirty-one in all. In his report he suggests dividing the cut into zones of relative uniform geological environments to help monitor and document movement. We use these zone names at our dig sites. Today the slopes are monitored constantly through instrumentation and field inspections so remedial measures can be implemented if movement is detected.

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Culebra Cut

The good news for us is that there is now a newly scraped-clean excavation site for us to investigate for fossils. We went there twice last week and discovered shark teeth, croc teeth, and a bunch of invertebrate fossils. image

Fossil Friday 1/29/16: A camel astragalus

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UF 244163, the right astragalus of Aguascalientia panamaensis. Photo © VP FLMNH.

This week’s Fossil Friday features an astragalus of the camel Aguascalientia panamaensis. You can easily tell that these and other camels are artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) from their double pulley astragalus. This specimen was found at the Lirio Norte site of the Las Cascadas Formation and is early Miocene in age.

Fossil Friday 1/22/16: A turrid snail

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UF 208176, the shell of Hindsiclava consors. Many turrid snails are venomous and can inject venom into their prey using their specialized radula. Photo © IVP FLMNH.

This week’s Fossil Friday post features the turrid snail Hindsiclava consors (Family Turridae). H. consors would have been found in both on the Caribbean and the Pacific sides of Panama from the early Miocene to the late Pliocene. This specimen was found by Gary Morgan in the Gatún Formation and is late Miocene in age.

Christmas tree worm

Two Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus). Photo by Nick Hobgood.

This family of predatory snails is known to prey primarily on polychaete worms (Phylum Annelida, Class Polychaeta). One modern-day polychaete worm is the Christmas tree worm, which uses its Christmas tree-shaped appendages for respiration and for filter feeding.

To learn more about this turrid snail, see the “Fossils of Panama” post on it here.

Fossil Friday 1/15/16: A camel mandible

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UF 254113, the right mandible of Aguascalientia minuta. The left mandible of this particular individual (not shown here) was also recovered and has the same catalog number. Photo © VP FLMNH.

This week’s Fossil Friday is the mandible of the camel Aguascalientia minuta. This specimen was found at the Lirio Norte Graben site in the Las Cascadas Formation and is early Miocene in age. This fossil camel species is the smallest known floridatraguline (Family Floridatragulinae).

To learn more about this specimen, read the publication on it here. Also, be sure to check out another floridatraguline from Panama (Aguascalientia panamaensis) at one of our previous Fossil Friday posts here.

Reference

Rincon, A., Bloch, J.I., Suarez, C., MacFadden, B.J., and Jaramillo, C. 2012 New Floridatragulines (Mammalia, Camelidae) From The Early Miocene Las Cascadas Formation, Panama. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32: 456-475.
www.dx.doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2012.635736

Isla Barro Colorado

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On the boat from Gamboa

Last month some visitors from the States and I had the opportunity to take a three hour guided tour of Barro Colorado Island. One of my friends noted that you should always be Leery of a three hour tour to an island after the fate of the Skipper and Gilligan. But we decided to brave it anyway.

The island was established as a biological reserve in 1923 and has been administered by the Smithsonian since 1946. It is part of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument that includes five surrounding peninsulas and encompasses 12,000 acres. Every year hundreds of scientists come to Panama to do research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center on the island.

The island is located in the middle of Lake Gatun, a man-made lake formed when they dammed the Chagres river to build the Panama Canal. The tropical forest on the island is home to a diverse population of wildlife including over 120 species of mammals.

imageThe tour began with an hour long boat ride along the canal to the dock at Barro Colorado. It was fascinating to sail alongside the big ships that were traversing the canal route. My friend is a merchant marine and was able to educate us about the types of ships we were passing and what they might carrying.

We headed out for our hike through the forest. Along the way we were introduced to incredible flora and fauna. We saw roosting fruit bats, eggs of the red eye tree frog, foam nest of the tungara frog, a coati, walking trees, howler monkeys, poisonous caterpillars, a tinamou (a turkey like bird), spiders dining on something deli, leaf cutter ants, and agoutis along with many more amazing plants and animals.

We finished up with a buffet lunch of fish and rice, and a boat ride back to the dock in Gamboa, tired, happy and full of great food! If you get a chance to go on this tour I give it two thumbs up!    (All photos by Sara ElShafie)

Fossil Friday 1/8/16: A protoceratid skull

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UF 223585, the partial skull of Paratoceras coatesi. You can see the orbital where the eye would have been on this specimen. Photo © VP FLMNH.

Welcome to the first Fossil Friday post of 2016! This week we have an exciting specimen to present: a partial skull of the protoceratid Paratoceras coatesi. This specimen is the holotype of the species and was found in the Escobar Section locality of the Cucaracha Formation (early Miocene).

To learn more about this species of protoceratid, check out one of our previous Fossil Friday posts that includes the paper where it is described.

Fossil Friday 12/18/15: An extinct carcharhiniform shark

UF 262186, a lower tooth of Physogaleus contortus. Photo VP FLMNH.

UF 262186, a lower tooth of Physogaleus contortus. Photo © VP FLMNH.

This week’s Fossil Friday feature is the tooth of an extinct species of shark called Physogaleus contortus. This specimen was found in the Las Cascadas locality of the Culebra Formation and is early Miocene in age. This shark had a widespread distribution during the middle Miocene.

To learn more about this specimen, read the publication that includes it here.

Reference:

Pimiento C., Gonzalez G., Hendy A., Jaramillo C., MacFadden B.J., Montes C., Suarez S.C., Shippritt M. 2013. Early Miocene chondrichthyans from the Culebra Formation, Panama: A window into marine vertebrate faunas before closure of the Central American Seaway. Journal of South American Earth Sciences 42: 159-170
www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsames.2012.11.005.

Fossil Friday 12/11/15: a Springvale Cup and Saucer Limpet

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UF 214431, a Springvale cup and saucer limpet. (Photo © IVP FLMNH).

This week’s Fossil Friday is the Springvale cup and saucer limpet, Crucibulum springvaleense. This specimen was collected from the Gatún Formation and the mollusc that inhabited it would have been found filter-feeding while attached to rocks in Late Miocene oceans. Although this mollusc looks similar to a limpet, it is not a true limpet and is not closely related.

Studying Panama’s Microfossils

Hello from the lab!

While I spend most of my time in the field looking for new fossils, I also have the opportunity to work on original research while I am working with the PCP-PIRE project. I have previously worked with microfossils, specifically ostracods, so I decided to look at the types of ostracods preserved in the Canal deposits.

In particular, I am looking at the ostracods from the new locality we discovered two weeks ago that is full of gastropods and bivalves. When we returned to the site, I discovered nummulites, which led me to believe that foraminifera and ostracods would be present in the deposit as well. However, these fossils require a microscope to see in detail. I collected four sample bags of sediment from different rock layers in the outcrop, and returned to the lab to process them.

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The new invertebrate locality, in which I am searching for microfossils.

Another intern at the Smithsonian Center for Paleoecology and Archaeology, Andrés Ríos, also studies fossil ostracods, and helped me prepare the sediment to view under the microscope. We used a dilution of hydrogen peroxide to disaggregate the rock. Andrés sieved the sediment into different grain sizes and let the sediment dry in the lab’s drying oven.

Under the microscope, I use a small paint brush to sift through the grains to locate ostracod individuals and place them on a microfossil slide. Though I have only just begun going through the sediment samples, I have found several types of ostracods, both juveniles and adults. The following ostracods are from a portion of one sediment sample I collected.

I will continue to comb through my sediment samples in search of ostracods, and then work on identifying all the different genera present in the new outcrop. With this information, we will be able to identify the type of environment in which the locality was deposited–whether it was marine, brackish, or freshwater–as well as its relative age based on the microfossil biostratigraphy. I’m looking forward to learning more about this new site based on these minuscule fossils!

-Dipa Desai