A Busy First Week Along the Panama Canal

This past Friday, we finished cataloging all of the fossils that we collected during the past week of fieldwork, which totaled over 60 specimens!

Fossils collected during our first week of fieldwork along the Panama Canal and Lake Alajuela. Photo by E. Whiting

Fossils collected during our first week of fieldwork along the Panama Canal and Lake Alajuela. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

It was a busy and productive first week of collecting along the Panama Canal and shores of Lake Alajuela (the previous 3 weeks were spent conducting geological fieldwork in the Azuero Peninsula, see our May 29 blog post for more details); our first week of fieldwork in the canal basin, led by PCP PIRE Project Manager Dr. Aaron Wood, yielded numerous fossil mammal teeth, turtle shell fragments, a snake vertebra, a partial crocodylian skull, and a camel jaw with several teeth!

Earlier last week, I made my first plaster jacket for a fossil specimen in Panama! On Monday, I found a very fragile fossil camel jaw with most of its teeth intact, but a tropical downpour prevented us from being able to collect it. A few days later, the weather finally held out long enough for us to return to the site and make a plaster jacket to protect the camel jaw for safe and secure transport back to the lab. The process of making a plaster jacket in the field can be seen in the PCP PIRE March 2014 eNewsletter.

Overall, it was a very good first week in the Panama Canal and surrounding areas, following our 3 week adventure in the Azuero Peninsula. Hopefully we’ll have a lot more success in the Panama Canal basin as this summer continues!


Fossils of Panama

Architectonica nobilis, a sundial gastropod

Architectonica nobilis, a sundial gastropod from the Gatún Formation.  Photo from the Fossils of Panama website.

The fossils of the Miocene age Gatún Formation have been studied for over 150 years.  Examples of fossil vertebrates (sharks and  rays) as well as invertebrates (molluscs, crustaceans, corals) were digitized to improve accessibility of this information to both researchers and the public.

As a PCP PIRE collaboration with iDigBio, Fossils of Panama was a massive project spearheaded by Dr. Austin Hendy, with Kassie Hendy (photo processing, content) and Claudia Grant (web design) also taking on large roles within the project.  A pdf of a poster containing life-size images of the fossils can be accessed here.  The web version, including more high-quality images and magnified views of individual molluscs, can be found here.

The digitization effort continues with PCP PIRE, iDigBio, and Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí, with volunteers Johanna Tjeenk Willink and Mike Schwartz, undergraduate Catherine Snyder, and graduate students Arianna Harrington and Aldo Rincon all playing significant parts in the progress.  We look forward to the digitization and increased accessibility of additional Panamanian fossils!

Introduction: Evan Whiting, Summer 2014 PCP PIRE Intern

Hello friends and followers of PCP PIRE! I’m Evan Whiting, one of the new Summer 2014 PCP PIRE interns. I recently graduated with highest honors from the University of Florida with my B.S. in zoology (geology minor) after 4 years of study. Go Gators! I have also volunteered, worked, and conducted research at the Florida Museum of Natural History for over 3 years, and am pursuing a career in vertebrate zoology.

Evan Whiting on the University of Florida campus.  Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

My main research interests include the evolution, systematics, anatomy, ecology, biogeography, and diversity of birds and reptiles, especially with respect to climate and environmental change. Using the fossil record as a window into the past can help us understand the dynamics of biodiversity during major climate change events in Earth’s geologic history, as well as how we can potentially better preserve modern biodiversity.

This is my second time going to Panama for paleontological fieldwork. I went this past March through the University of Florida course “Cenozoic Vertebrates of the Neotropics” and got to experience firsthand what it’s like to collect fossils along the Panama Canal. I can’t wait to see what living and fossil treasures Panama has in store for me this summer, before I begin graduate school at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln this fall!

On-call paleontologist


PCP PIRE Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Gary Morgan keeps busy.  In addition to his role in PCP PIRE studying the small vertebrates of the neotropics, with a focus on bats, he is primarily the Curator of Paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.  When a probable Stegomastodon skull (extinct relative of the elephant) was found by members of a bachelor party who were camping at Elephant Butte State Park in New Mexico, Gary was brought in to properly excavate and salvage the find.  The Albuquerque Journal has more information here.

Bruce MacFadden’s Blog


PCP PIRE Principal Investigator Dr. Bruce MacFadden is blogging about his summer courses, fossil trips, and Panama activities with GABI-RET (Great American Biotic Interchange – Research Education for Teachers).  He will be accompanying a group of teachers this July for hands-on field work in Panama.  Check out his most recent blog posts here.

First Impressions

Panama City is very humid. We arrived to find that we, and everyone else, would develop a thin layer of perspiration to wear everyday as an extra article of clothing. One of the immediate things one notices upon leaving the airport in Panama is that traffic here operates more quickly and fluidly that in the well structured and regulated setting we’re used to in the United States. Cars whiz past when able to find a foot of space and lanes are often intangible, if existent. Also, people use their horns more as a common means of communication to other drivers than in the States. It can be wild, chaotic even, but somehow everyone gets around without much evidence of frequent accidents occurring. The streets are dominated by cars, the sidewalks by people, except in a small shopping district (Cinco de Mayo) near where we live. There the street is dominated by people wandering between open store fronts with only a few small crossings for vehicle traffic. It’s a great place to observe a cross section of the working class in Panamanian culture through the multiplicity of shops, food markets (including a nearby fish market), and sidewalk stands that sell goods. Despite having a large shopping mall nearby, we find this district more interesting to traverse than the convenience of a mall is worth. Although we haven’t had as much time to explore Panama City as we will in the coming month, we have been able to go out a few times in Casco Viejo (the old district), which has developed into a tourist hotspot. We’ve mostly ventured there to enjoy a Panamanian dance hall that opens for parties every Thursday through Saturday. The dominant musical styles are Bachata, Merengue, Reggaeton, and, of course, Salsa. I’ve been taught a bit of each by our Colombian friends and coworkers, but hope to learn more, of Salsa especially, in the coming weeks. I’ve heard talk of a dance studio that offers cheap public lessons nearby and I’d love to take a few evenings to learn the dance better.

Introduction to Wesley

My name is Wesley von Dassow and I’ve loved living and working in Panama this summer. This past December I graduated from Lafayette College (Easton, PA) with a degree in geology; however, I spent my final semester before graduating early at University College Dublin in Ireland. I have a strong interest in the structural evolution of the global landscape, especially sedimentary basins, and how the physical processes described by geology influence environmental transitions and biogeographical shifts. This year I’m taking off from school to spend time working, exploring Latin America, and making the most of the opportunity to work with PCP-PIRE in Panama. If you’re still curious about all things Wesley then read on!

Wesley finds a small shark tooth in a stream bed near Gainesville, FL

Wesley finds a small shark tooth in a stream bed near Gainesville, FL

I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida in the city of Sarasota, not too far from the University of Florida in Gainesville. I come from an academic family, many of whom are biologists focused on marine critters of some variety. As a youngster I flip-flopped between aspiring to be a marine biologist or a paleontologist, later into my schooling I settled on marine biology. It wasn’t until taking an elective course in college that I decided on a career in the geological sciences. From a young age I played the violin, a requirement of my household as both my parents were musicians to some degree, my father was a professional cellist. Football is huge in Florida and I grew up playing flag football with my friends, but in high school I started playing football at a local high school as mine had no varsity sports programs. Upon entering college I began playing Ultimate Frisbee, which has remained a passion of mine since. During the summers of my college “career” I completed internships across the country. First, I worked a paleontological dig with the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, then analyzed satellite imagery of the moon with researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Air and SpaceMuseum in D.C., and used radar data to identify fault movement at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA each year respectively. In January of 2013 I traveled with a class from Lafayette to the region around Quito in the Ecuadorian Andes and the Galapagos Islands that ignited my interest in Latin American geology and the culture of its people. I plan to continue exploring South America after this summer position with PIRE has concluded starting in Bogota, Colombia and working my way south to the Patagonia region of Chile.