Discovering Ice Age Fossils at La Brea Tar Pits: A Field Trip

December 28, 20121

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.

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