Discovering Ice Age Fossils at La Brea Tar Pits

A fascinating field trip we took part in when we were in Southern California this past fall was to La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is one of the world’s most famous fossil localities. This onsite museum displays Ice Age fossils — including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths —  from 10,000 to 40,000-year-old asphalt deposits.

Exploring La Brea Tar Pits

Hands-on at La Brea Tar Pits
Getting a feel for how difficult it would be to pull your leg out of the tar

Here, visitors can also watch the processes of paleontology unfold.  Inside the glass-enclosed Fish Bowl Lab, scientists and volunteers prepare fossils including “Zed,” a recently discovered male Columbian mammoth.  Outside the museum, in Hancock Park, the Pleistocene Garden and iconic life-size replicas of extinct mammals depict the life that once grew, and roamed, in the Los Angeles Basin.

Dire Wolf Skulls at La Brea Tar Pits
404 Dire Wolf skulls, a fraction of the more than 1600 wolf remains found here

Of the five dog species found here, the Dire Wolf is the most common.  It is thought that packs of Dire Wolves attempted to feed on animals trapped in the asphalt and became mired themselves.  The skulls are not exactly alike in either size or shape.  These minor differences is sure to yield information about wolf evolution and population structure.

Saber Tooth at La Brea Tar Pits
Taking cover from the Saber-tooth Cat

Harlan’s ground sloth (Paramylodon harlani) is one of three species of ground sloths found at La Brea. Related to modern tree sloths, armadillos, and anteaters, ground sloths migrated to North America from South America.  Harlan’s ground sloth was an herbivore, browsing on both shrubs and grasses.

Pit 91 at La Brea Tar Pits
The colored flags mark specific bones visible in the pit that have yet to be excavated

Pit 91, pictured above, is an excavation site located outside the museum in Hancock Park.  Here the site is left ‘in situ’ so visitors can get a glimpse of the work archeologist undertake in the asphalt conditions.  Presently, the pit is 15′ in depth and is not actively being excavated at this time.

Excavation has been taking place here for over 100 years. Because of the extraordinary number of fossils still in the ground, excavation continues to take place 7 days a week.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visit here and even did a little Letterboxing nearby before they opened.

Aquarium of the Pacific

When we were in Southern California earlier in October for a family holiday at Disneyland, we also made a few little day excursions .. one to Legoland (of course), one to La Brea Tar Pits, and one to Long Beach specifically to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific.  Sweetie had received earlier in the year, free passes to the aquarium for her honorable mention in the California Coastal Commission’s annual Coastal Art & Poetry Contest.

We arrived just in time to see the diver presentation at the Honda Blue Cavern, modeled after the local Blue Cavern Point, a kelp forest along the northeastern coast of Santa Catalina island.  We enjoyed listening to the diver identify several of the species found in this community, including the Giant sea bass (Sterolepis gigas).

Focused on the Pacific Ocean, the aquarium is organized into three main galleries: Southern California/Baja, Northern Pacific, and Tropical Pacific.   The Ocean Science Center uses NOAA’s “Science on a Sphere” to explore our planet and tell stories about ocean phenomena and their impacts.  Other exhibits include The Shark Lagoon, Lorikeet Forest, Molina Animal Care Center, and Watershed Exhibit. Additionally, there is a special exhibits gallery which featured the Arctic & Antarctic: Our Polar Regions in Peril exhibit while we were there.

I was delighted to point out to the kids the large Sunflower seastars (Pycnopodia helianthoides), the largest seastars in the world.  To the touch, they feel like soft, velvet and velcro covered sponges.  They are commonly found where the substrate is soft, feeding on clams.

While enjoying the outdoor exhibits, Buddy climbed aboard a ship and received an unexpected squirt from a giant fish nearby.  Thankfully, he thought it was as funny as we did and we all chuckled.  :)

One of our favorite exhibits was the June Keyes Penguin Habitat located outdoors.  We included the photo below in our annual Christmas DVD – you would be surprised to learn how many people asked us if the penguins pictured beside us were actually real.  “I can’t believe they let you hug them,” one family member actually said.

Throughout the aquarium, there are eight embossing stations where visitors can emboss an image of a sea creature in the corner of their visitor’s guide.  This was a great activity for the kids, keeping them engaged and focused on their signage.  If you enjoy Letterboxing and collecting National Park Passport cancellations like we do … you’ll love this.