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Unearth Fossil Discoveries Online With the La Brea Tar Pits

Excavation is never ending at the La Brea Tar Pits. Though the museum is closed, their work uncovering fossils dating back 11,000 to 55,000 years ago to the Ice Age continues. Photo courtesy of La Brea Tar Pits & Museum


By Laurie Hanson • February 2, 2021


Budding paleontologists can now learn virtually about the only active Ice Age urban fossil site in the world that is located at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

“It is a very dynamic place,” said Agnes Novie, coordinator, school programs for 10 years at the La Brea Tar Pits. “It is a pretty special place to be.”

When the museum was open prior to the pandemic, Novie especially loved watching students see and learn about all the animals dating back as far as 11,000 to 55,000 years ago who once called Los Angeles home.

“Our understanding of Ice Age L.A. is changing all the time,” said Becca Wilcox, coordinator, school programs for 2 years. “There are still tons of questions to be asked and answered, and maybe [students] will become the scientists to help answer those questions.”

Although the indoor museum has been closed since mid-March, there are a limited number of essential staff onsite continuing excavations, monitoring and ensuring the sites are secure. Their sites are viewable and located in Hancock Park, but access to viewing platforms remains closed.

“As you wander through the park you will see ‘tar’ still bubbling to the surface,” said Novie. “This substance is really asphalt that trapped unsuspecting animals and plants of the past.”

“Asphalt is the lowest grade of crude oil, and it can be found seeping to the surface throughout the Tar Pits park,” added Rachel Fidler, manager, school & teacher programs with the Natural History Museums of L.A. County.

“The oil was formed from marine plankton deposited in an ocean basin during the Miocene Epoch (5-25 million years ago),” she added. “Over time, pressure converted the organisms into oil. The petroleum has been migrating to the surface, either along a faulted sedimentary zone or along steeply dipping, porous sedimentary rock layers.”

“During the last 50,000 years, it has trapped and preserved animals and plants that lived in the surrounding area,” said Fidler. “Dire wolves are the most common large mammals found at La Brea Tar Pits, with about 4,000 are represented in its collections. The remains of over 2,000 individual saber-toothed cats rank second and coyotes rank third.”

The site is particularly important because the immense number of fossils found in the asphalt which tell what Los Angeles was like during the Ice Age going dating back from 11,000 to 55,000 years ago, according to Fidler.

“The more scientists discover from the tar pits, the better they can use fossils, and other evidence, to study how Ice Age animals lived and survived, and can apply that knowledge to our current climate crisis,” she explained.

One such discovery from the Ice Age was “Zed,” a Columbian Mammoth who somehow traveled too far north.

“Zed is one of the biggest discoveries made in Project 23,” said Novie. “He’s a well-preserved male adult, about 80 percent complete, including the skull and both intact 10-foot-long tusks. This is a rare find, the first nearly complete individual mammoth to be found at La Brea Tar Pits.”

Since 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered, representing over 231 species of vertebrates. More than 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. It is estimated that the collections at La Brea Tar Pits contain about three million items. When completed, Project 23—their current excavation—may double this number. The public can still visit both sites within Hancock Park.

During the pandemic, the La Brea Tar Pits staff created lesson plans and activities that teachers and parents can use at home, and they led weekly virtual presentations for students to participate in. Their programming includes a monthly “Fossil Finds” webinar, a scientist Q&A, puppet meet-and-greets, and facilitated virtual “in-classroom” student programs with museum educators.

Teachers can participate in online professional development to keep connected and learning. Standards-based programming is offered for students of all ages and grades (pre-K through 12th) into spring 2021. Interviews and activities created by their Teen Program offers interviews and activities including virtual online field trips.

“One of the things I really enjoy about my job is showing students science in action,” said Novie. “La Brea Tar Pits is an active scientific research museum where we are constantly exploring, learning, investigating, and sharing ideas.”

“People of all ages can experience our museum online via social media, livestream events, educational programs, and activities that showcase our vast collections and experts,” she explained. One example available is their virtual day camp, “Adventures in Nature Connected.”

The La Brea Tar Pits is steeped in rich history and dates back as far as 1828, when a Mexican Land Grant of more than 4,400 acres was given to Antonio Jose Rocha, providing that residents of Rancho La Brea’s pueblo had access to as much asphalt as needed for personal use.

In 1924, the last owner, George Allan Hancock created the Hancock Park when he donated 23 acres from it to Los Angeles County. The donation contingent on the preservation of the park and its proper exhibition of fossils discovered. By 1915, excavations were at their peak and were being done by the Los Angeles Museum (now the Natural History Museum). More than 96 sites excavating over 750,000 specimens of plants and animals were being completed.

Most excavations were halted and would not begin again until 1969, when “Pit 91” was reopened. It remains in excavation today.

By 1975, philanthropist George C. Page had already purchased Rancho La Brea, and financed construction of the onsite museum. The George C. Page Museum of the La Brea Discoveries opened to the public in 1977. In 2019, the Page Museum and Tar Pits were together renamed as the La Brea Tar Pits.

Today, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), which includes the Natural History Museum (NHM) in Exposition Park, La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park, and the William S. Hart Museum in Newhall, are a public-private partnership between the non-profit Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation and the County of Los Angeles.

Besides Los Angeles County’s support, the NHMLAC depends on revenues from admissions, their stores and café. Memberships as well as donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations are also vital to their ongoing work.

Donations are used to fund groundbreaking research, deliver free virtual programming for all ages during their temporary closure, and to care for the preservation of more than 35 million specimens. Donations of any amount can be made by visiting online.

The NHMLAC also has a Community Science Program that welcomes all to participate in projects and events, such as BioSCAN, SLIME, and the Backyard Bat Survey. To support researchers and get involved with community science initiatives from home, click here. 

Prior to the pandemic, the La Brea Tar pits allowed volunteers to participate in their excavations and to gain experience working with the public. Though the volunteer program is currently on hold, those seeking further information about it and the La Brea Tar Pits can visit online at www.tarpits.org.