Smithsonian Celebrates the Panama Canal Expansion

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is celebrating the recent expansion of the Panama Canal. Over the past five years, the Panama Canal expansion has offered a rare and complete sample of Panama’s geology.

With the recent excavations, Smithsonian scientists have had the unique opportunity to travel back in time to study the country’s natural history.

As the $5.6 billion dollar engineering feat begins operations, STRI scientists continue to study several natural findings with global relevance. Among the topics of research are fossils, invasive species, whale migration routes and environmental effects.




North American Monkey Fossils found during Panama Canal Expansion

STRI staff scientist Carlos Jaramillo, scientists from the University of Florida and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History have been working together for over five years on the Panama Canal Paleontology Project. The scientists and their team are working to salvage fossils uncovered during the Panama Canal expansion excavation. Fossils found in this area are unique as they reveal ancient migrations between North and South America.

The most notable fossils found so far are the 21 million-year-old teeth from a new species of monkey, which has become the earliest monkey fossils to be found in North America. The seven monkey teeth reveal that this ancient monkey somehow made a 100-mile ocean crossing between North and South America. It is still a bit of a mystery as to how the ancient primate made it across the sea that divided North and South America during the early Miocene. Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History for the University of Florida, offered two possibilities for the journey one being, an extremely long swim and the other more likely option, on a raft created from vegetation. This would have been a trip similar to that of his ancestors who traveled in this fashion from Africa to the New World.

Regardless of how the monkey arrived, in honor of the species epic journey into modern-day Panama the ancient monkey species was named Panamacebus transitus. A name derived from the Latin word transit, meaning crossing.

What kind of monkey would P. transitus have been related to? Possible the capuchin and the squirrel monkey, both found in Central and South America. Bloch says “We suggest that Panamacebus was related to the capuchin (also known as "organ-grinder" monkeys) and squirrel monkeys that are found in Central and South America today. ” He continues to explain that prior to this discovery, New World monkeys were believed to have evolved in isolation on South America, a land mass that was cut-off from North America by a wide seaway. The new discover could very well re-write history.

The Relationship Between the Panama Canal Expansion and Invasive Species

The recent canal expansion has brought questions and concerns about invasive species back to the surface for STRI scientists and bio-diversity researchers. Invasive species find their way into new territories in a couple of ways. Ships inadvertently pick up species of plants, animals and parasites in ballast tanks (the water held in tanks and cargo ships to increase stability and maneuverability during transit), while others cling to the ship's hull. These hitchhiking species can then travel from the Atlantic into the Pacific or in the reverse direction.

Ira Rubinoff, who was the STRI director in the 1960s argued that a freshwater bridge between oceans would keep the risk of invasive species low, since most marine life forms were not believed to be able to withstand an abrupt change in salinity. However several species have been recorded doing just that. Rhithropanopeus harrisii, or the Harris mud crab, can be found in estuaries and quasi-freshwater lakes with salinities as low as 0.4 ppt. The crab has been introduced to new territories transported in ships' ballast water and by attaching itself to the hulls of ships.

One study is working to use the increase in ballast discharge and traffic to project the effect the Panama Canal expansion could have on invasive species, by studying a 5-year period (2015 - 2019). So far it is estimated that the expansion will see a large increase in ballast discharge (up to 72%), which means that organisms transported by ballast water and ship hulls is also likely to increase.

Whale Migration Routes and Increased Traffic through the Panama Canal Expansion

According to reports published in Smithsonian Global, nearly 17,000 commercial vessels cross the Gulf of Panama each year, with the recent expansion this number will surely increase. STRI scientist Hector Guzman has been studying the migration of humpback whales in the area and estimates that 1,000 humpback whales come to Panama annually from as far south as Antarctica to breed and give birth. After studying these migrations for a period of two and a half years, STRI scientists believe that over 13 whale's deaths have occurred due to collisions with large shipping vessels.

In an effort to curb this, the government of Panama proposed a “traffic separation scheme” to the International Maritime Organization, which would require ships in the Bay of Panama to reduce their speed and use one narrow shipping lane. The plan was approved the International Maritime Organization, and implementation began in Panama December 2014. Researchers expect that it could reduce the probability of collisions between ships and whales by 95 percent. One of the major concerns of the traffic scheme is that will create a super highway increasing noise in one concentrated area. By measuring ship noise scientist can better understand the potential effects it may have on marine life, specifically migrating species like whales that rely on clicks and echoes to communicate and find food.

This year, environmental activists and government agencies worked together to develop a mobile app designed to help ships avoid marine life. The app that aims to further the conservation of whales, specifically those migrating in shallow waters near ports, was developed by the IFAW organization with the collaboration of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

The “Whale Alert App” provides a real-time image of the ocean and information about places where whales have recently beenseen or heard directly to a smart phone. It also notes speed restrictions in designated areas and prohibited areas. The App will recommend routes to avoid endangered species to those who use it.

Environmental Effects and Mitigation Strategies in the Watershed of the Panama Canal

STRI scientists have been studying Soberania National Park and protected areas which are directly linked to the conservation of the Canal’s freshwater supply, integral to the functioning of the canal.

A project called Agua Salud aims to study how native tree species in lowland tropical forests can help regulate water flow through soil, maintain biodiversity and store carbon. With last year’s El Niño creating water shortages in the canal, the STRI monitoring station have also been working to gain a better understanding of these events and the effects they have on the watershed.

A recent publication Managing Watersheds for Ecosystem Services in the Steepland Neotropics offers a Set of guiding principles for watershed management. Several topics discussed include the functioning of watersheds and how a better understanding of them is critical for sustainable development. The publication also speaks to the need of scientific data on forest coverage and groundwater reserves to guide planning and management.


The Smithsonian has always been closely connected to the canal. The organization first created an inventory of the species in the watershed and assessed the environmental condition of the area between 1910 to 1912. In 1923, The Barro Colorado Island research station was established in Lake Gatun during its creation for the purpose of study.

Today the Smithsonian continues to stay connected to the unique laboratory that the Panama Canal continues to create furthering research in Panama and the rest of the world. With the completion of the Panama Canal expansion Smithsonian scientists continue to study, explore and share their findings from the unique opportunity man has created for science.