A few miles of land arose from the sea—and the world changed

Panama is an event as well as a place. Smithsonian scientists are learning what it has meant for continental animal swapping, ice ages, et al.

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Long after the death of the dinosaurs, but well before the emergence of humans on earth, the continents of North and South America were separated by a deep sea. Underneath the waves, gigantic blocks of earth's crust ground against one another. This violence begot a string of volcanoes. Eventually, islands broke the surface of the water and before long a land bridge formed to connect the continents.

For a group of scientists working at the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute (STRI), located in Panama, the sequence of events surrounding the rise of the isthmus is a dynamic story of earth's physical wonders. "We're looking at the rise of the isthmus," says STRI's deputy director Tony Coates, "as perhaps the single most important natural history event since the death of the dinosaurs." It kicked into gear a chain of events global in magnitude, rerouting ocean currents, catalyzing ice ages and profoundly altering Europe's climate.

STRI's geologists, paleontologists, ecologists, botanists and anthropologists are revealing a world formed by violent and catastrophic events--all interdependent. "You can't think about the world as marked by order and precision anymore," says one researcher. "The more we learn, the more we find it chaotic, unpredictable and complex."

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