North and South America Collide
The most astounding thing about Panama is that even though you’re in the banking capital of the lower Americas you’ll still find yourself surrounded by one of the most prolific and unusual ecological sites on the globe. Over millennia, the Central American Peninsula, through tectonic action, slowly advanced towards the South American Continent until the two met about four million years ago. When the two collided the land life forms from North and South America started to intermingle and hybridize through direct species-to-species contact. This continental crunch also severed the intermingling and mixing of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans that had flowed through the Atrato seaway, the channel between North and South America, for millions of years. Fauna and flora of the two oceans could no longer coalesce and interact with each other. New evidence, the discover of land animal fossils known to have existed in North America some nineteen million years ago, suggests that Panama was a peninsula of North America not a series of islands that had risen to form the isthmus connecting the rest of Central America.
So how did this event make Panama the globes unrivaled medium for observing nature’s changing canvas? Currents that were undisturbed for countless millennia changed in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The new tectonic barrier thrust between the Atlantic and Pacific was the harbinger of huge changes in our climatic system when they stopped flowing between the two seas dead in their tracks. The Gulf Stream current of the Atlantic grew stronger, since it no had no outlet to the Pacific, increasing the amount of warm moisture in the atmosphere which sparked the formation of glaciers that soon covered North America. On the Pacific side the flow created the Humboldt Current, which grew into a major carrier of small and large aquatic species providing man with one fifth of all the worlds’ total ocean harvest. And the mash up of the two continents left distinct separate sets of proxy artifacts found during the canal excavation.
The excavation of the Panama Canal and the huge Gaillard Cut would reveal the stratus of the isthmus laid down millions of years before. The channel exposed a geologist’s dream field of rock and fossils that certainly would have remained hidden without the massive wound of the big ditch. The schema for the canal included a huge water storage component used to fill and receive run off from the series of locks that raise and lower ships. When it was finished, in 1913, Gatun was the world largest manmade lake constrained by the largest constructed earth dam in human history. Upon filling this massive lake a five square mile island called Barro Colorado remained which later became a research facility of the Smithsonian Institute. This island is one of five sites around the Canal that carries on ecological research studies in a variety of disciplines. The Smithsonian welcomes the public to its exhibits and holds free citizen seminars at the Earl S. Tupper Center, yes, the founder and inventor of Tupperware, at least once a month.