Panama Canal expansion boon to A&M fossil hunters

Although the Panama Canal celebrated its 95th anniversary this summer, two Texas A&M University researchers traveled there not for the festivities but for the fossils.

Ethan Grossman, Williford Professor of Geology and Geophysics, and Ph.D. student Kai Tao were in Panama to participate in field studies made possible by a canal expansion project said to be its most ambitious since it was built.

The excavation is creating fertile digging ground for fossil hunters. Grossman and Tao hope that analysis of the fossils they collected this summer will explain an enigma: why the Caribbean extinction lagged the closing of the Central American Isthmus by two million years.

"Excavations associated with the widening of the canal provide a rare opportunity for paleontologists and geochemists to sample wide swathes of freshly exposed strata," Grossman said. "Kai and I went to Panama to participate in field studies in and around the Panama Canal in an effort to characterize the climate and paleoceanographic change associated with the closing of the Isthmus four million years ago, and its influence on the ensuing Caribbean extinction event."

This init ia l research was

unded by a shor t-term fellowship awarded to Tao by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. STRI is dedicated to understanding biological diversity in tropical regions. Beginning in 1923 as a small field station in the Panama Canal Zone, STRI has grown to be one of the world's leading research institutions.

Tao spent a month in residence at STRI doing field studies and consulting with scientists there. Grossman joined him for a week of fossil collecting.

Working under STRI researchers Camilo Montes and A ldo Rincon, Grossman and Tao explored outcrops on the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the canal.

One of their field excursions was featured in a video news story by freelance AP reporter Paul Byrne and can be viewed by visiting AssociatedPress and searching for "fossils in Panama." Although the video features comments by Grossman, he is quick to acknowledge that the real experts and "heavy-lifters" of the effort were the researchers at STRI, especially Montes and Rincon.

Tao just accepted delivery of the first installment of his efforts, over 200 gastropod and bivalve fossils shipped from Panama, samples collected by him and by new collaborator Aaron O'Dea, a STRI paleobiologist.

These specimens will be analyzed for stable oxygen and carbon isotopes and strontium/calcium ratios, which will provide measures of temperature and ocean-chemistry change, data that the research team hopes will bring them closer to an explanation of why the Caribbean extinction lagged the closing of the Isthmus by two million years.

For more information on STRI visit To learn more about the research of Grossman and his graduate students, visit profile/EGrossman.

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2009-11-26 digital edition

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