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.

Castle Crags State Park & Mt. Shasta

When we returned from our holiday in Southern California (Disneyland, Legoland, & Long Beach), we were in dire need of some outdoor time.  Solitude and peace that only nature could provide.  The weather Sunday morning was perfect – sunny and relatively cool so we ventured out for long hike to Castle Crags State Park.

Castle Crags State Park features 28 miles of hiking trails, including a 2.7 mile access trail to Castle Crags Wilderness, part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.  The Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the park.  The park is named for the 6,000-feet tall glacier-polished crags.  The solitude you experience as you explore the forest or traverse part of the Pacific Crest Trail cannot be matched.

The spectacular mountains you see in these pictures represent vastly different geologic stories and processes that have been shaping the land for more than 500 million years.  The persistent forces of day-to-day erosion, together with slow earth movements, keep this mountain landscape in dynamic flux.

The Gray Rocks are mainly greenstone and are a detached portion of the Copley Formation, related to the ancient and complex geologic history of the Klamath Range.  The spectacular Castle Crags are made of granite that cooled slowly deep within the earth.  Over time, this granite was uplifted and the rock above it worn away.  Once the granite was exposed to the elements, water and ice have taken over as the main sculpting forces, breaking fractures in the rock, creating the castle-like features.

Mt. Shasta reaches the impressive height of 14,179 feet and is by far, the youngest geologic feature in the area. Mt Shasta is volcanic, forming in episodes beginning 530,000 years ago and last erupting in 1786.  Considered dormant now, it will undoubtedly become active again in the future.

It was an awesome day.  We planned ahead and managed to bring along snacks and plenty of water to drink. It was an arduous hike, however, so we rewarded ourselves with dinner in Dunsmuir – where we discovered a little brewery.  The food was delicious and though our bodies were tired, our spirits were rejuvenated.

The Periodic Table of Elements … Up Close & Personal

Periodic Table of the Elements

Photo by E.Lite

When I was in college, I spent a great deal of time on the campus of the University of Oregon.  While I was not a student here, my boyfriend (now my husband) was and I thereby spent a great deal of time with him in Klamath Hall and the Art Library (he liked the intimacy of this library better than the larger Knight Library).  One of the things I remember most about this part of campus was the visual Periodic Table of Elements.  When we had free time in Eugene recently, I knew this was one venue I wanted to share with my kiddos since we had recently spent some time learning a little chemistry ourselves.

I was delighted to discover that the building was accessible in the summer and open to the public.  Prior to our arrival, my kiddos couldn’t quite understand my desire to show them this when I tried explaining it in words.  Once they saw it in person, however, they were excited and very grateful.  They loved finding their favorite elements:  Au, Po, and Ra.  Can you tell we also read a biography of Marie Curie?

I inquired with thestaff as to the specifics regarding the elements on display but to my surprise, no one seemed to know anything.  If memory serves me correct, however, I believe that one mole of each element is on display. A mole is a chemical mass unit, defined to be 6.022 x 1023 molecules, atoms, or some other unit. The mass of a mole is the gram formula mass of a substance. For example, 1 mole of copper has 6.022 x 1023 atoms and weighs about 63.54 grams.

Oregon’s Coastal Ecology

A week ago, we had an opportunity to spend a few days with my dad in Bandon.  Though my childhood home was rented for many years, my father now resides here once again.  We visit as often as we can and try to stay for a few nights at least once a year.  It is always a special time.

Coastal Ecology – 4 Distinct Habitats

On Saturday morning after breakfast, we ventured out onto the mudflats across the street from the house.  We were careful this time around to don old tennis shoes for the occasion.  We headed out at the peak of low tide, but had neglected to check the tidal height.


We thereby discovered, once we were underway, that the tide wasn’t particularly low.  We wouldn’t thereby have as much time for agate collecting as we had anticipated.   

The rock in the mudflats where my brothers and I spent many hours role-playing our favorite stories.

Crossing the mudflats, we observed many signs that wildlife had been here prior to us.  At least two are visible here: one mammal species and one bird.

While I was distracted with my camera … everyone kept moving along.  Anxious to get to the sandy beach where the agates collected and due to the location, rarely seen by human eyes.

Upon crossing the creek, we were then able to step up onto the salt marsh.

Salt Marsh

We observed an abundance of driftwood, pickle weed (Salicornia), and sea lettuce (Ulva).  We didn’t spend much time here this time as the tides were against us, however, we did manage to see evidence that a meal had been enjoyed here – at least by one resident.As we came up over the berm, sadly there is some European beach grass (Ammophila arenaria) here too. We discovered that the beach was amass with Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) basking in the sun. We tried not to disturb them, but with a 6 year old rambunctious boy, that is near impossible.  The seals thereby made a mad dash for the water as soon as they realized we were there.

Sandy Beach

Harbor Seals sunbathing on the beach … at least until we arrived.

We walked along the sandy beach in search of agates … collecting our favorites and investigating other objects of interest.  All the while, the seals observed us from afar, likely wondering when we were planning to leave.  A small group of seals, even followed us along the shoreline for some distance, snorting on occasion, clearly disgusted with our presence.

Agate hunting on the sandy beach

We observed numerous tracks along the sandy beach as well .. though different than those we’d seen on the mudflats.

It was a beautiful morning with very little wind.  We would have liked to have stayed longer, but we knew the tide threatened to trap us on the island or force us to swim so we headed back after about 40 minutes.  We walked back the same way we had come and thereby came to the section of the beach where the three seals I had photographed had been relaxing.

We quickly crossed the mudflats and then continued to trudge across the mudflats.  We observed the remnants of another Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister) meal, now becoming a little jealous.  We would have liked to go crabbing too, but we just didn’t have the time.

We were indeed fortunate to have headed back when we did.  On the way out, the creek depth had reached only to my knees.  On the return, however, it was up to my waist.  My dad helped the two little ones cross at the deepest point.  My little guy was quite concerned with the incoming tide.  Though he is a strong swimmer for his age, I actually began to worry he might not be able to swim if the need arose, due to panic.

Upland Forest

Each evening, at dusk, we also trekked across the road to take a peak at the beaver (Castor canadensis) who has recently taken up residence in a culvert on Dad’s property. Sadly, he was always too quick for us and we never observed him in person … only evidence of his presence.  Dad has seen him frequently, so we know he’s there.  Each time we tried to sneak up on him .. he’d duck away and into the culvert under the road.  The water would undulate back and forth in smooth waves as proof he had been there only a moment before.

The picture above shows the trail that he has formed as he travels back and forth through the forest to the mudflats just on the other side of these trees.

It was a great excursion and one we look forward to repeating again. Buddy has a different opinion, however.

Estuary Ecology

Immerse yourselves in a field study of the estuary and its distinct habitats with my Estuary Ecology curriculum available in my store.

Becoming a Junior Ranger at Haleakala National Park

While we were in Maui, Sweetie completed several activities at the Haleakala National Park to become a Junior Ranger. When we arrived, the ranger at the counter gave her a booklet and explained that for her age, she would need to complete 4 booklet activities (as there were no talks scheduled for the time we were there). The activities we selected were:

#1 What is Wilderness?
Whereby she learned about what activities are permitted in the wilderness area.

#2 Who is Native to Hawai’i?
Whereby she learned about the species that are native to Hawai’i and those that are not.

#3 What Animals Live Here?
Whereby she learned about habitats.

#4 Where is the Volcano?
Whereby she learned about volcanic rocks.

#5 Ancient Ways and Words for Today
Whereby she learned two Hawaiian words: malama ‘aina (to respect and care for the land) and alu like mai (pull together, work together)

Upon completion of the activities, Sweetie sat down with a ranger and was interviewed about what she had learned. I videotaped the interview and hope to post it here as soon as I can figure out how to download it off the video camera. During the interview, Sweetie described to her what she had learned about invasive species before our arrival. “I want to go to a luau so that I can eat bad pig!” (We didn’t explain to her that the kahlua pig isn’t likely the wild pig that is destroying the forests.)

Sweetie also told her about a snail that she had helped get across a trail so that it wouldn’t get stepped on. The ranger asked us to describe the snail and in doing so, we learned that based upon it’s size and color, it was likely the invasive African Cannibalistic Snail. “The native tree snails are found higher in elevation.” Sweetie was distraught, “Oh no! I should have stepped on it then!” The ranger got a chuckle out of that.

Most National Park Service sites that have a Junior Ranger program award participants a plastic badge for completing the program. Some award a patch; a few award a lapel pin. Some do both. Haleakala awarded a badge. However, they had patches available for purchase so we bought one as they are our preference. As she completes future Junior Ranger programs, I’ll make a banner for her to display her badges & patches.

Click here for more information about the National Parks Junior Ranger program. Another very informative site was created by a teen… Sam Maslow’s Junior Ranger Site.