Peccaries in Panama


Modern Chacoan Peccary in the Phoenix, AZ zoo. Photo courtesy of Dave Pape, via wikimedia.

Cynorca occidentaleVP UF234400d

Lower jaw of “Cynorca” occidentale UF234400

This is the lower jaw of “Cynorca” occidentale UF234400, early to middle Miocene, 19-14.8 mya. This extinct peccary was part of the Centenario Fauna in Panama, and is the first fossil peccary found in Panama. Read more about this fossil find in the MacFadden et al. publication in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, linked here.


Lake Alajuela

This past Monday, Bruce McFadden, principal investigator of the PCP PIRE program, arrived with a group of 10 middle school and high school teachers –  participants in the GABI RET program. Together with Jorge Moreno and the PCP PIRE interns, they will be exploring fossil localities throughout Panama, learning about science – not as a collection of facts, but as science in action.

The first site to be visited was the locality of Alajuela, a lake in Chagres National Park, an hour from Panama City.

Bruce McFadden, director of the GABI RET program, introduces participants to Lake Alajuela

PCP PIRE intern Evan and supervisor Jorge explain to the GABI-RET participants how to create and prepare a plaster jacket.

Fragments of a fossil turtle, in place, shown with scale.

Evan Whiting, PCP PIRE intern, prepares the fossil turtle for a plaster jacket.

Laura, of the GABI RET program, searches for fossils along the shores of Lake Alajuela.

Scott, of the GABI RET program, finds the first fossil of the day – a megaladon tooth!

PCP PIRE intern Robyn Henderek finds the second fossil of the day – a lemon shark tooth!

Close up of fossilized lemon shark tooth.

Megan of the GABI RET program.

Jason of the GABI RET program examines the stratigraphy along the shores of Lake Alajuela.

Wesley von Dassow, PCP PIRE intern, demonstrates the dip (tilt) of the beds (horizontal layers of rock).

Honey, of the GABI RET program, displays a newly excavated shark tooth.

Finding Shark Teeth Along the Shores of Lake Alajuela

On Monday of this week, I was fortunate to make several interesting fossil finds along the shores of Lake Alajuela, in Chagres National Park. The water levels were very low, which facilitated the finding of vertebrate fossils by exposing the correct sediments which they can be found in. Less than 30 minutes into the field day, I came across a chunk of fossil turtle, and after some digging, realized that there was a lot more turtle there. After working on the turtle for a while, I started walking along the exposed banks of the lakeshore, following the fossiliferous sediments.

I walked for much further than I had expected to be able to, given the low lake levels and large amount of exposed outcrop; then I found something really neat. The lake water was nearly lapping the fossil itself, so I decided to collect it in case the water levels rose or a wave came by unexpectedly and washed it away. It was a beautifully-preserved Carcharocles megaladon tooth. Certainly not a big one by any means for a “meg” (especially compared to the hand-sized behemoths that can be found in Florida creeks), but still a large shark tooth nonetheless. It was an exciting moment, finding my very first “meg” tooth in Panama. Hopefully I can find more on my return trips to Lake Alajuela this summer before the end of the internship!

C. megaladon tooth from the shores of Lake Alajuela, Chagres National Park. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

C. megaladon tooth from the shores of Lake Alajuela, Chagres National Park. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Getting to Work

As week 2 begins in Panama we shifted our field schedule slightly earlier into the day (morning) in order to avoid some of the intense heat, humidity, and frequent early afternoon showers. Being in a tropical climate during the rainy season rain may still prove to be an obstacle, but hopefully a bit less so earlier in the day.

Unfortunately, upon returning we’ve found that some previous localities have been covered up by construction activities at the canal. However, as old localities are destroyed by construction activity, new ones may be created for us to find over the coming days and weeks. We’re all very hopeful that we might find the next great canal locality to yield an important find!

In the past week we’ve also visited two talks, both by Dr. Gustavo Politis from La Plata – Olivarria, Argentina. His talks both covered human-environmental interactions. The first talk was given as part of the Paleo-Talk series at STRI’s Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA) in Ancon and the second was given at STRI’s Isla Barro Colorado (BCI) research station. There are, generally, talks presented every week at the local STRI research facilities. There is also Tuesday seminar series at the Tupper research center in addition to the weekly Wednesday and Thursday night talks at CTPA and BCI respectively. As a group we plan to make it to as many talks as we can, especially any that may have relevance to our work. The talks BCI are especially nice although the logistics of traveling there may prove to be prohibitive on occasion. First, we must drive/bus to Gamboa, although the drive is very pleasant and passes through a long stretch of dense rainforest. Then, we must take a ferry (really just a small passenger boat) to the research facility, but I rather enjoy boat rides and the scenery along the canal is completely new to all of us.

In other news, we look forward to visiting and getting a behind the scenes look at the BioMuseo in Panama sometime soon. We’re also exploring the possibility of spending a weekend on Isla Barro Colorado; more updates on these events as they occur. This past weekend we spent time on the beautiful beaches of Isla Grande on the Caribbean coast where we were able to pick the calcareous skeletons of various coralline organisms out of the beach. It was a wonderful way to relax after an interesting first week of work in the canal basin following three weeks of field work in the Azuero Peninsula of Panama.


Meet Robyn!

Hola! My name is Robyn Henderek and I am one of the four PCP-PIRE Summer 2014 interns. I am a rising senior at Lafayette College in Easton, PA double majoring in Geology and Anthropology. Within the field of geology, I am interested in studying paleo-environmental reconstruction especially pertaining to human evolution during the Plio-Pleistocene in East Africa. This past spring, I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Craig Feibel of Rutgers University on the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project. My job was to record the stratigraphy of a 200-meter long continental core from Nariokotome, Kenya. In the same vein, I recently returned from a three month-long field course in the Turkana Basin, Kenya where I studied pre-historic archaeology, vertebrate paleontology and geology.

Robyn excavating a juvenile Deinotherium from Turkana, Kenya.

Robyn excavating a juvenile Deinotherium from Turkana, Kenya.

In spite of this, my interest in rocks began long before I could even pronounce conglomerate. The rocky coast of Maine first captured my attention not for it’s scientific significance but because the weathered schists and beautiful white granite intrusions made for a great playground. I would spend my summer days hopping from rock to rock, looking in the tide pools for crabs and starfish while exploring the small world I lived in.

When I got older, I learned how much more interesting our planet is, both in time and space. Now, I am so excited to be here in the Panama Canal Basin this summer exploring the Miocene.

Gamboa and Pipeline Road Adventure

This morning I had the privilege to go birdwatching in one of the world’s most famous Neotropical rainforest locations: Pipeline Road, just outside the small town of Gamboa in central Panama.

Sign marking the beginning of Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto in Spanish) in Gamboa, Panama. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Sign marking the beginning of Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto, in Spanish) in Gamboa, Panama. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

This has been something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so finally getting to Gamboa and hiking up the road through the tropical rainforest was spectacular. I also paid a visit to the nearby Panama Rainforest Discovery Center (PRDC), and was quite impressed.

It’s said that some people have seen over 300 species of birds on Pipeline Road in a single day; this may seem exorbitant (and ridiculous), but it’s not surprising if you go and see the incredible avifaunal diversity that exists there in person. I was blown away by the number of bird species that I saw, not to mention all of their beautiful and multicolored plumages. I wasn’t used to the birding style though, and was thrown off at first when I hardly saw or heard any birds upon entering the rainforest. Many Neotropical rainforest birds often appear in small flocks with multiple species all at once, followed by long periods of quiet and seemingly little bird activity. There are exceptions to this (such as with toucans and kingfishers, both of which I saw and heard along the road), but it’s surprising how different the birding was compared to back home.

Among my biggest “hits” today were an Oscellated Antbird, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (heard, but unfortunately not seen), Broad-billed Motmot, Golden-collared Manakin, and loads of stunning hummingbirds at the nectar feeders on the porch of the PRDC’s visitor center.

Hummingbirds at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center's visitor center nectar feeders. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Hummingbirds at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center’s visitor center nectar feeders. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

I highly recommend a visit here if you’re interested in seeing rainforest wildlife (especially birds) in Panama! It was first class, and the rainforest canopy tower on their grounds was incredible too! I will definitely be returning to Gamboa again before I leave Panama this summer!

After visiting Gamboa, I returned home to Panama City to rest and prepare for the next week of fieldwork along the Panama Canal. It will surely be an interesting and productive week, especially after finding/rediscovering new localities last week. One of my top priorities early this week is to return to and collect a fossil turtle that I discovered late last week. Who knows what other awesome fossil treasures we might find next week!

From Colón to Corozal

Greetings and Happy (belated) American Independence Day from the Summer 2014 PCP PIRE Intern cohort! Last night we celebrated the 4th of July with classic American cuisine including hotdogs and apple pie. We hope you had a safe and enjoyable celebration as well!

Happy 4th of July from the Summer 2014 PCP PIRE Interns! Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Happy 4th of July from the Summer 2014 PCP PIRE Interns! From left: Wesley, Robyn, Michelle, and Evan. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

This week, we travelled from the Pacific to the Caribbean with a giant snake, collected and prospected along the Panama Canal, and screenwashed sediments for vertebrate microfossils.

Our week began at STRI in Panama City, where we closed up crates containing the world’s second life-sized model of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived. It was discovered nearly a decade ago in a massive coal mine in Colombia, and was first published and named in 2009. It has captivated the world ever since, inspiring a documentary film, a (first) life-sized model (currently on exhibit at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; formerly on exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, USA), and even a cell phone game! Once the crates were ready, they were loaded via forklift into a truck that went to the Caribbean city of Colón; from there it will be taken by boat to Colombia for further exhibition (it was formerly on exhibit at Albrook Mall in Panama City).

Titanoboa exhibit at Albrook Mall in Panama City. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Titanoboa exhibit at Albrook Mall in Panama City. Photo courtesy of E. Whiting.

Following our day of packing and transporting Titanoboa to Colón, we resumed our collecting efforts along the Panama Canal. This week wasn’t as successful as the previous, unfortunately, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Finding fossils in the tropics is difficult, and there’s always an element of luck that plays into it. We still collected some mammal and croc teeth, though, and I found a partial turtle shell on Thursday that I’ll return and collect early next week after making a plaster jacket for it. Also on Thursday, University of Florida Ph.D. graduate student Aldo Rincon, PCP PIRE Intern Supervisor Jorge Moreno-Bernal, and I scouted for new (and rediscovered old) fossil localities along the Panama Canal. We were very successful, and have significantly increased the number of available outcrops to prospect and quarry at.

We finished our work week at a facility in the canal-side neighborhood of Corozal, where we screenwashed sediments bagged and collected from one of our most productive Panama Canal localities, in search of vertebrate microfossils. After setting up the screenwashing apparatus and preparing the sediment to be washed, we worked through several bags and produced concentrate that will be “picked” for microfossils later on (I found a number of small caiman teeth during screenwashing though, which was exciting). It was a nice end to our work week, and a great way to start our 4th of July celebration. Thanks for reading, and farewell until my next blog post!

Screenwashing (Down and Dirty)

A follow up to yesterday’s post.

As mentioned yesterday, large bones and fragments are easy (relatively) to find in the field. Collections include turtle shell, ungulate jaws, rhinoceros and even crocodillian skulls. Hidden within the same layers we find these bones, however, are even more fossils. These fossils, which include teeth and bone fragments of rodents, bats, and other small vertebrates, are often the size of the sediment grains in which we dig, if not smaller.

In order to find these micro-specimens, we must separate bone from sediment.

Bags of sediment, collected from sites in which we have found other, larger fossils.

Sediment bags are labeled with locality ID and collection date.

We separate trash from treasure in a process known as wet sieving, or screenwashing. Sediments are soaked thoroughly and run through a series of wooden boxes with mesh screen bottoms of increasingly smaller sizes. Running the samples through these sieves allows dirt and smaller grains of rock to fall through the screens, leaving behind larger fragments.

The interns prepare a bag of sediment for washing.


Soaked sediments are deposited into the first of three screens. Large rocks will be left behind, while small fossils and clay sized particles are washed down into the next layer.

Not every location in which fossils are found is necessarily a good location for screenwashing. Sites comprised of well consolidated rock can hardly be used – instead a site is needed that consists of soft sedimentary rocks such as mudstone, claystone, and siltstone. These can easily be broken down and washed.


PCP PIRE 9 (5)  PCP PIRE 9 (3)

PCP PIRE 9 (14)PCP PIRE 9 (9)

Following the washing, sediments are lain down to dry.

Jorge Moreno, PIRE intern supervisor, holds a collection of crocodile teeth found in a preliminary search of washed sediments.

Once dry, sediments are bagged and labeled so they can be sent for further sorting and inspection under a microscope.

Sediments from the sacks, washed and labeled, awaiting inspection under microscope.


AZUERO (AGAIN?!), Unexpected Educational Moments

In a few weeks a group of teachers will arrive with Principal Investigator Dr. Bruce McFadden to gain hands-on research experience at the fossil localities in the Canal Zone of Panama. It’s strange to think that in some way over the time that they will be here, I will in some way be teaching some small bit about paleontology to someone who could easily have been my teacher sometime in the past 10 years.

Thinking about this reminded me of one final experience to share about our time in the Azuero Peninsula that I thought was relevant to our audience.
One day I was sitting on the beach in Palo Seco where I’d found, with Liliana of STRI, a chunk of fossilized wood a bit smaller than an American football about a week earlier. That day we were there to collect fossils so, I decided to sit down to try and retrieve it. Despite the fact that it was exposed and large enough that someone could trip over it, the limestone matrix it was deposited in was incredibly tough to chip away. I sat down next to the fossil with a chisel and mallet to hack away at the rock surrounding the fossil, the aim being to get underneath it and finally free it from its rocky grave. I hadn’t been there for more than 15 minutes when four small Panamanian boys wandered over and stared at me in silence for 2 or 3 minutes. Finally, one of them asked “what are you doing?”, but in spanish. My Spanish skills are just strong enough that I decided to take a whack at explaining what I was doing to this cadre of young Panamanians. After some stumbling over pronunciation and struggling to find words or phrases to describe my activity accurately they seemed pleased with the explanation I had provided. After that, I went back to work. To my amazement, they were interested enough, or sufficiently bored, to sit and continue to watch even as chips of tough limestone pelted each of them as I continued to beat at the rock. However, I was then retrieved for a more pressing matter farther South along the beach, at which point the boys amused themselves by pulling limbs off an unlucky crab that had wandered too far from its rocky home.
It amazed me at first the patience and curiosity that these students had to watch me attempt to extract a fossil chunk of wood to little avail. Then I remembered the intensity of interest I had in dinosaurs at there age. It leads me to wonder, however far out it may be or not, whether they might remember that out of place ‘gringo’ sitting on the beach when they’re in school and decide to explore geology as they continue through school.

A Bit (More) About Azuero

You may all be wondering why you’re only just hearing from us in July although we’ve been in Panama since the last days of May. Many more of you may know that we spent the intermediate time working on the Azuero Peninsula; here’s a bit about that experience.

The three weeks in Azuero were spent working and living in close quarters with a class (15 students) from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.


Attendees of the UniAndes Azuero Field Course 2014. (Evan Whiting and Michelle Barboza absent from photo)

Communication was primarily in Spanish, so we experienced near complete immersion in the language on top of having the opportunity to practice field techniques while learning the geology of an area entirely new to us. It was doubly exciting as the western portion of the Azuero Peninsula is covered little in the overall body of geologic literature providing an opportunity for us to make meaningful contributions to science through assisting the class.

For the most part, work took place in streams or on the beach, tides permitting. It was hot, difficult, and a lot of fun. Some days we spent scouting unfamiliar streams to look for new outcrops to refine our geologic map and to take samples from. Many times, we walked away from these scouting days empty handed, having found only alluvium covering the river banks and cowpies littering the we crossed to reach them. You can read more about our experiences in Azuero in the July issue of the PIRE newsletter.