When the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), one of the world’s largest scientific organizations, recently unveiled the first 100 locations to be designated Geological Heritage Sites, LA's iconic La Brea Tar Pits made the cut. Not only that, but the active paleontological research site on Wilshire Boulevard is the only urban location in the world to receive that prestigious designation.
Even for Angelenos who can recall childhood field trips to La Brea Tar Pits, its unique status might come as a surprise. "The fact is that we have an incredibly rich collection - the best in the world - of terrestrial land animals from the Ice Age right here in LA," says Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, which oversees the Tar Pits.
Located on Museum Row in the heart of LA, this geological wonder gives scientists and daily visitors a peek into 50,000 years of change in Los Angeles. “We’re able to learn from this how the whole system was shifting with the climate and what happened, potentially, when humans came in,” says Bettison-Varga. “It gives us a very good image that L.A. was like the Serengeti, with much larger animals, and what has survived through that shift in time can help us learn about changes in today’s environment.”
Long a part of the local landscape, the sticky substance that trapped the animals whose fossils we see today isn’t actually tar - it’s asphalt. For hundreds of years, Native Americans relied on this goo in waterproofing processes. Folks had known that there were animal remains in these pits, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that scientists realized these were actually the fossils of Ice Age animals.
In 1907, Los Angeles High School teacher James Z. Gilbert and his students launched the first excavation of the pits. Just a few years later, L.A. County would take over the digs, with the fossils displayed at what is now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM). The on-site Museum at La Brea Tar Pits opened in 1977.
When you stop by the famed Lake Pit - the inky black, bubbling pool in front of the museum - you’ll notice that it smells like a road construction site. Tens of thousands of years ago, the asphalt in this oil-rich part of what is now Los Angeles trapped now-extinct animals like the Columbian mammoth, Harlan’s ground sloth and dire wolves. The remains of these animals are exhibited inside the museum.
For Game of Thrones fans, the wall of dire wolf skulls is a must-see. Fossils from more than 4,000 individual animals are in the collection - a valuable resource for researchers. “Normally, in paleontology, you’re getting little snapshots - here’s part of one animal, here’s part of another animal,” Emily Lindsey, associate curator and excavation site director at La Brea Tar Pits, explains. “Here, we have thousands of individuals of the same species spanning more than 40,000 years, so we’re able to do research on the species similar to the type of research that we do on modern animals, on modern ecosystems.”
La Brea Tar Pits is also the rare museum that is part of an active excavation site. Since 2006, the team has been working on Project 23, a collection of 23 boxes of fossil deposits retrieved when the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was constructing its underground parking garage. There’s also Pit 91, a summertime dig that’s been ongoing for more than a century.
The most famous find from Project 23 is "Zed," a mostly complete Columbian mammoth skeleton. Inside the museum, Zed’s enormous 10-foot tusks are on display, or you might see other skeletal parts in the Fossil Lab, where paleontologists work on specimens from the La Brea Tar Pits collection.
It’s not just new discoveries that keep scientists busy. Advances in technology have allowed them to revisit older pieces in the collection to learn more about the lives that provided these fossils. Bettison-Varga mentions how the fossil of a saber-tooth cat has shed new light on how it survived. Previously, the animal was believed to have been injured, but new technology revealed that it had hip dysplasia. “It was an adult who probably had hip dysplasia early on,” she explains. "The only way that animal could have survived is if it had been part of a grouping. So, there’s some interpretation of social behavior.”
Museum visitors can watch a life-size saber-toothed cat come to life during Ice Age Encounters, a dynamic multimedia performance created in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, whose numerous film and TV credits include The Muppets, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
While large extinct animals are some of the best known fossils to emerge from the tar pits, the remains of much smaller flora and fauna, including creatures and plants that still call Southern California home, have been found during excavations as well. In fact, it’s quite common to find evidence of species that still exist.
“One of the really special things about this site is that it completely covers the last major interval of global warming that Earth experienced, from about 18,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago,” says Lindsey. “We have almost 600 species of plants and animals identified from the tar pits and only a small fraction of those are extinct. Most of those are still around, either in the Los Angeles Basin or somewhere else in North America today.”
This makes La Brea Tar Pits an incredibly important resource not just for local scientists, but for those studying the impact of climate change all over the world. “The small micro fossils are going to tell us about how the climate has changed, what things might have been happening in terms of changes in plants and the small animals,” says Bettison-Varga. “What has survived through that shift in time can help us learn about changes in today’s environment.”
With that in mind, the story at La Brea Tar Pits isn’t necessarily about extinction. Says Lindsey, “It’s a story of a lot of survival and resilience.”
The La Brea Tar Pits story continues with a Master Plan that reimagines the 13-acre campus. In December 2019, NHMLAC announced that architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi would helm the project, which features a "Loops and Lenses" concept that includes a new Exhibition Building; Visible Fossil Lab; pedestrian bridge across the Lake Pit; shaded outdoor classroom at Pit 91; terrace and Tar Bar; and additional picnic and play areas.
Co-founder and principal Michael Manfredi told the Los Angeles Times, "There is no city that is more quintessentially American than LA. And there is no site more quintessentially LA than the La Brea Tar Pits."
La Brea Tar Pits & Museum
5801 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036