I was thrilled to be on hand at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama when staff scientist Carlos Jaramillo and others published their amazing find of the world's largest snake—42 feet long and weighing 2,500 pounds (previous records were 33 feet and 403 pounds). Actually, 28 of these giant snakes have been found.
Since I am a geological engineer, it was even more interesting for me to tour Jaramillo's most recent project at the Panama Canal. Massive new excavations to allow the world's biggest ships to pass through via a third, larger set of locks have exposed geological formations that date back 17 million years and given Jaramillo an opportunity to help solve a puzzle: how and when the land bridge connecting North and South America formed. Jaramillo's group collects newly uncovered fossils and compares them with fossils found in North America from the same time period. The comparisons should shed light on the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, which began about 20 million years ago; the closure of that isthmus some three million years ago launched two of our planet's great experiments in biodiversity. The first, the Great American Interchange, began when the fauna and flora of North America invaded South America and vice versa across the newly formed land bridge. The second began when the isthmus formed a barrier, dividing marine organisms into Caribbean and eastern Pacific populations.
During my visit to STRI, I also took in the cacophonous whoops of howler monkeys and rode high above the forest canopy in a research gondola held aloft by a construction crane; I observed butterfly aerobatics and working ant colonies. STRI's focus is Barro Colorado Island, located in the canal's Gatun Lake; its 1,316 plant species, 381 bird species and 115 mammal species are among the world's most intensively studied. Institute scientists are illuminating how forests capture carbon from the atmosphere, studying the health of coral reefs and documenting invasive species. This and other STRI science will inform exhibits at the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Biodiversity (BioMuseo) next to STRI labs at the Pacific end of the canal. Designed by Frank Gehry, the new museum will open next year, just in time to celebrate the Smithsonian's 100-year partnership with Panama.
Those among you less interested in geology might still be wondering about the snakes. Not to worry. They preferred eating crocodiles and giant turtles. And the discovery was of snake fossils (mostly backbones) in the remote jungles of Colombia; the snakes, called Titanoboas, lived some 60 million years ago.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.