How a big dig in Panama to make shippers richer saved a rainforest and astounded paleontologists

By Dave McBride


Standing at the new Cocoli Pacific Locks of the Panama Canal today in the company of heads-of-state and assorted Pooh-Bahs and Potentates) we watched as Panama opened a bigger door to world commerce.


By this time, most everybody knows the basic way that a lock system provides the steps for ships to climb and descend between sea level and the lakes above. But we also learned that the expansion of the canal is also the story of a scientific sensation and environmental salvation.

There is a newly made-up word in the world’s lexicography which, in that single word, describes a complex story about how corporate profiteering and a national need partnered to save the rain forests of Panama from ruinous development. The word is Neopanamax. Panamax was the word coined to describe the biggest size a cargo ship can be to fit through the Panama Canal. The locks newly opened after a decade of construction were designed for an even more immense ship called Neopanamax, which requires a space that is wider, longer and deeper. The wider and longer requirements are accommodated by the brand new locks on either end of the Canal. The deeper element of the design required that the waters across the interior of Panama be raised higher to float the enormous new ships. Deeper means more water and that requires rain.

Canal lake interior

Lake Gatun—Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

Like the Everglades in Florida, the tropical rainforests of Panama help create their own weather.  The humid forests give up evaporated moisture that rises into the clouds and condenses into rain. To ensure that enough rainwater falls to raise the rivers and lakes that fill the canal and float bigger ships, the government of Panama, realizing their reliance on this symbiosis, declared the interior rainforests throughout the canal region to be protected from development.

Another gift to Panama from the new canal project is that scientists were able to follow the diggers into the bedrock carved out for the new locks and to discover fossils that surprised paleontologists around the world. Deep in the Las Cascades Geologic Formation, researchers from the University of Florida and elsewhere found seven fossil teeth that shook the foundations of animal origin theory. These are teeth of a monkey similar to the capuchin that wears a bellhop’s hat and dances to the tune of the organ grinder. The teeth are 21 million years old. That means monkeys lived in North America before it was connected to South America by the Panama land bridge.

Monkey images

Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

Till now it was assumed that South American monkeys evolved there and traveled to North America after the isthmus rose up. Now it is clear that somehow monkeys floated north, perhaps on rafts of floating debris, across a hundred miles of ocean separating the two continents to colonize the forests in the southern tip of North America millions of years before the two continents were connected. The scientists called the ancient monkey species Panamacebus transitus, to allude to the monkey’s movement across the ancient seaway that divided the continents. The U.S. National Science Foundation contributed almost four million dollars to the scientific project to study the fossil record revealed by the cutting of the new canal lock, which was led by researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History. The great variety of fossils identified in the dig include those of camels, crocodiles and fierce bear dogs (Oh my).

Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.

6 thoughts on “How a big dig in Panama to make shippers richer saved a rainforest and astounded paleontologists

  1. Curious as to how much Cosco paid to transit. And,how much it saved over off loading to smaller ships or sailing around the tip of South America.
    We did a cruise ship transit a little over a year ago as was wowed by the canal back then.

  2. I heard from an official at the Inaugural Ceremony that the toll was approx. 600 thousand dollars. Apparently a huge savings versus another 2 1/2 weeks around S. America. In shipping time really is $$$.

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