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Ice Age Fossils in Los Angeles

Mammoth Skeleton Tuusks Page Museum photoThe La Brea Tar Pits have been one of the most famous features of Los Angeles ever since the city grew from the coastal plain where the waters of the Pacific Ocean receded 100,000 years ago. In early years, photographs of the Hancock Park area west of downtown can be seen crowded with a forest of oil wells, drilling for the oil formed from the biomass of the ocean floor covered with earth over the eons. The oil wells were replaced by houses and business buildings along the Wilshire corridor. But on the spot where nothing could be built were the pits and pools of tar seeping to the surface for the past 40,000 years. The pits of black oily goo covered with a shallow layer of water would attract animals of the Ice Age to get caught in the sticky tar, especially in the warm summers. The larger animals trapped would be attacked as easy prey by other predators. They would also get caught and ultimately buried in deep asphalt deposit layers.

La Brea Tar Pits today photoThe La Brea Tar Pits were named a National Natural Historic site in 1962. The most visable feature of the La Brea Tar Pits is the small lake next to the Los Angeles County Art Museum which remains active. Replica statues of a family of California Mastadons have been placed to give a representation of what it would be like for an animal to be trapped there. Bubbles of gas occasionally boil up from below, reminding that the forces which formed the pits are still active. Though subtle and not unpleasant in a curious sort of war, the air smells of the acrid asphalt aroma as if roofers were at work nearby. The animal statues are fake, but the lake tar pit is very real, now surrounded by a fence.

Sloth Skeleton Page Museum photoThe La Brea Tar Pits get their name from a Mexican Land Grand called the Rancho La Brea (Brea is Spanish for tar). There is a main avenue in Los Angeles called La Brea running from Hollywood south, but the tar pits are not on that street. They're about a mile west on Wilshire Boulevard. The George C. Page Museum in the park surrounding the pits was opened in 1977 to house the finds from the excavations and tell the history story of the pits and the animals found there. The Page Museum, dug into a mound underground now holds the world’s richest and most important collection of Ice Age fossils. Because the surface pools would catch both preditor and prey as well as leaves and insect which would get caught in tar, the entire story of a place in time is told by the fossil record. There are no dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits. They were long extinct by the time the ocean receded from the California coast. The bones found at the tar pits are all from the age of prehistoric mammals - like those creatures from the Ice Age cartoon movies, characters partially inspired by visits to the Page Museum.

Dire Wolf Skulls Wall Tar Pits Museum photoFull skeletons on display in the Page Museum include American Mastadons, a Saber-toothed Tiger, prehistoric Short-faced Bear, Dire Wolves, and giant Ground Sloth. A principal and unmistakable feature of the museum is the wall of wolf skulls. Why were so many found in the pits? Once a large animal like the massive Columbian Mammoth skeleton with its incredible curved tusks would get stuck in the tar, the plentiful wolves would come from miles around, leaping to attack, their last easy meal. Displays at the museum also show life-like figures of the skeletons as they would have been, like a pack snarling Dire Wolves on the prowl. If you want to see dinosaurs, you have to go down to Exposition park for the new Dinosaur Hall (see Dinosaurs at LA County Museum).

Fishbowl Paleontology Lab Page Museum photoExcavations and recovery are still ongoing at the tar pits. The excavation sits can be viewed along trails in the park. The main Pit 91 was the most recent excavation site. There is a viewing window on the excavation, a pit of black hardened tar with steel supports, but work there has been suspended in favor of Project 23. Construction of a new underground parking structure for the LACMA art museum behind the former May Company building revealed more tar. As construction crews come to deposits, they cut out chunks of the stuff and pack it in large crates. The crates of tar sit inside a fence called the Project 23 compound, waiting for researchers to painstakingly work through the chunks. Once fragments or bones are removed they are sent to the “Fishbowl” laboratory in the museum, where museum visitors can watch through windows as the scientists and volunteers clean, restore and catalog the fossils.

Visiting the Tar Pits & Page Museum

Museum entrance lions photoThe George C. Page Museum is open from 9:30 to 5pm every day except for 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days. Admission is $7 for adults, $4.50 for Seniors and Students and $2 for children 5 to 12. With admission, free tours are given both inside the museum and of the outdoors park. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month. A continuously running film tells the story of the tar pits and the history of the area. The Museum Store offers an array of logo t-shirts, Ice Age themed apparel, books, stuffed animals, toys and unique gifts. If you want a deeper learning experience and encounter with paleontology, the Page Museum has a volunteer program. The museum has a parking lot for $7 for the day. There is street parking around, both metered and some not on 6th Street to the east but read the signs very carefully. The La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum are next door the LACMA Art Museum and the Petersen Car Museum is across the street at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The outdoor park is free to enter - just don't get stuck. © Bargain Travel West

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