PCP-PIRE on the MioScene – PCP-PIRE y la radio

Last week, our supervisor Jorge Moreno Bernal posted on the blog that we made the front page of La Prensa, one of the top-two national newspapers. Well, this week, we’re on the radio!


Left to Right: Sophie Westacott, Jorge Moreno Bernal, Louissis. In the studio!

A few days ago, the PCP-PIRE team in Panamá headed to the studios of Panama’s national public radio station for an interview with Louissis, a woman who has been the host of a popular radio show for twelve years running (Momentos con Luissis). We positioned ourselves in front of the microphones and began to talk about the work we do in the canal, our experiences living in Panama, and the upcoming talk that Jorge is giving at the Smithsonian’s facilities in Punta Galeta, near the Caribbean port of Colón. Continue reading


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.

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.


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.

Who You Gonna Call? Summer Interns!

While Evan, Jorge, and Aldo ventured out into the field as per usual, Wesley, Robyn, and myself took a detour to our offsite facility in Corrazal. Our building there houses neatly organized samples as well as equally organized bags of dirt. Dirt? Yes, dirt.

Sediments, if we should use a more technical name, are taken from fossiliferous layers in sites from which we have been excavating. While our time in the field allows us to find many samples, smaller specimens often slip through our fingers (quite literally).

What is to be done about such a loss? Sediments from these sites are collected and transported to sites such as these, where they are washed through a careful process referred to as screen washing.

Having collected a hefty amount of sediment from a few of our most productive sites, we the interns have been excited to begin the screenwashing process. Only one thing stands in our way – cleaning our site!

A shot inside the rooms of the facility. Samples are housed in plastic crates, carefully labeled and arranged by date and location.

The “before” picture – broken crates, unlabeled samples, torn bags, piles of dirt, and an unlucky anthill litter our workspace.

The “after” picture – the salvaged samples have been newly labeled and stored safely indoors and our workspace is clean and ready

As Jorge (PCP PIRE intern supervisor) and Evan (PCP PIRE intern) are still in the field, we must postpone the commencement of screenwashing until tomorrow morning – stay tuned!

Tuesday Afternoon

A national holiday has come and gone. Yesterday marked the inauguration of the new Panamanian president. Stores and services closed earlier than usual, or never opened at all. If one were to have peered into the city, through the streets of Cinco de Mayo (marketplace), past the Mercado de Mariscos (fish market) and just west of Casco Antiguio (Old Panama), one would have seen an ebb and flow. Skirts and shirts and hair and hands pressed against each other in a crowd, edging towards the city. A mile or more of road had been shut down along the edge of the towers and the start of the water, in the intersection between canal and ocean. Newly erected stages housed singers and dancers, tents and vendors lined against the street, and carnival games interspersed for a street fair in celebration.

The interns sip on 50c raspados (snow cones)!

One of the few stages lined up against the pier – artists from around the country had been and would continue to perform throughout the day.

Clouds rise and the sun falls behind the canal.

The buildings of Casco Viejo – the historic district of Panama, built and settled in 1600s.

Often our trips to Casco Viejo include a stop at Granclement Ice Cream and Sorbets. Todays flavors: guanabana and dulce de leche.

Elephants in Panama?

Dr. John M. Turner, an optometrist from Hattiesburg, MS, grew up in the Panama Canal Zone.  As a youth he collected fossils as a hobby.  Dr. Turner shared his fossils, including the tooth of a Gomphotherium (extinct relative of the elephant) during a chance encounter with PCP PIRE Principal Investigator Bruce MacFadden.  This exciting new find, and the story behind it, was profiled in two parts in the PCP PIRE eNewsletter (Part 1 | Part 2).  Dr. Turner’s fossil finds were also recently profiled in the Hattiesburg American.  We are grateful to Dr. Turner for his generosity with his fossil finds and his willingness to tell his story.
Below is a flickr album with photos provided by Dr. Turner from his time in Panama. Click on the image below for a slideshow, or follow this link for them to appear in a separate window with captions.

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!