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Earth Notes: La Brea Tar Pits

The assembled skeleton of a mastadon with large curling tusks on display inside a museum.
Carrie Cannon
Display at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles

Nowhere in the world can you visit an urban ice age exhibit taking place in real time, except the La Brea Tar pits of Los Angeles. Nestled around skyscrapers and engulfed by the second largest city in the country, the La Brea Tar Pits are well known for the massive ice age megafauna animals trapped within the unsuspecting tar.

Such pits form in areas where crude oil seeps through fissures in the Earth’s crust and portions of the oil evaporate forming sticky pools. For thousands of years tribes of the region sourced the tar for glue and waterproofing agents for baskets and canoes used traveling the seas to the Channel Islands off the Coast of L.A.

Fifty-nine different species of mammals have been excavated from the site including mammoths, mastodons, saber toothed lions, short-faced bears, giant sloths, ancient camels and dire wolves, not to mention more than 100 species of birds and many types of plants, insects, and mollusks.

Besides providing an interesting window into ice-age life, the fossils collected from the site comprise an unprecedented storehouse for understanding environmental change over the last 50,000 years.

The outside portion of the museum has a fenced view of the tar pits with depictions of ice age mastodons in the form of statues. Inside the museum, visitors can see towering skeletons of animals and view an active laboratory where scientists and volunteers clean, repair, identify, and study fossils. The site is so valuable it has been selected as one of the first 100 Geological Heritage Sites by the International Union of Geological Sciences.

This Earth Note was written by Carrie Calisay Cannon and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Carrie Calisay Cannon is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and also of Oglala Lakota and German ancestry. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Resource Management. If you wish to connect with Carrie you will need a fast horse; by weekday she fills her days as a full-time Ethnobotanist with the Hualapai Indian Tribe of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, by weekend she is a lapidary and silversmith artist who enjoys chasing the beautiful as she creates Native southwestern turquoise jewelry.
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