The Emergence of the Isthmus of Panama and its Unique Biodiversity

With its huge expanses of tropical rainforest, the Isthmus of Panama is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Its unique ecology stems from Panama's geological emergence from the ocean about 15 million years ago—an event that scientists consider to be the most important geological event of the last 60 million years.

Before the emergence of Panama, North and South America were two separate landmasses, but afterwards Panama became a land bridge that reconnected the ecosystems of the North and South American continents that had been separate for tens of millions of years.

Even though Panama is tiny compared to the other landmasses, Panama's emergence also had an enormous global impact because it cut off the flow of currents between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, rerouting ocean currents all over the world. The result is that Panama is a unique landmass with an impressive collection of flora and fauna that converged from both continents in a world-climate changing event.

Birds are a primary indicator of biodiversity and Panama takes the grand prize: it has 972 species of birds, more than the United States and Canada combined. Until 1996 Panama held the Audubon Society's world record for identifying the most species of birds in a single day - 357 species were counted in one 24-hour period. There are also 125 animal species found only in Panama.

Its biodiversity is so impressive that Panama is privileged to be home to the Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research, the world's primary tropical scientific investigation center, which for 80 years has been cataloging and monitoring this vast ecological heritage.

Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museumn
That Panama's migration patterns have come to emulate the country's rich biodiversity is a serendipitous coincidence. A visit to the Museum of Biodiversity, which opened only a few years ago, will give you an understanding and appreciation for the country's immense collection flora and fauna; these are a direct result of Panama's role uniting the northern and southern continental spreads over 15 million years ago.

Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the whimsical building is constructed of massive, colorful plates that weave into each other. Its playful design belies the architect's genius: here is a construction that has been made to symbolize the confluence of differences, the eruption into many, and mutual dependency and entanglement. You can see and hear the explosion in the happy spread of colors even as you appreciate how he has sought to harmonize them into a larger design.