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Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

10 Fascinating Facts About the La Brea Tar Pits

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Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

There's a gooey time capsule in the heart of Los Angeles, left over from an era when saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, camels, and giant sloths prowled southern California. At the site known today as the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, natural asphalt has bubbled up from below the ground's surface since the last Ice Age. This murky sludge has trapped and made fossils out of thousands of creatures, as small as bees and as big as mammoths. Here are a few of the amazing discoveries made there.

1. MORE THAN 3.5 MILLION FOSSILS HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED.

The tar pits have yielded one of the biggest collections of Ice Age fossils in the world, and collectively, the statistics are stunning. More than 600 species have been found, from snakes and mollusks to sloths and mountain lions. Of the mammals found at La Brea, around 90 percent are carnivores. (Amazingly, the pits have yielded more 200,000 individual dire wolf specimens alone.) The common explanation is that when big herbivores like mammoths got stuck in the asphalt, they would have looked like an easy meal to predators—who would then become stuck in the tar themselves.

2. PALEONTOLOGISTS STILL DIG THERE 361 DAYS A YEAR.

paleontologists working on bones
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Why 361? The site is closed July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The rest of the time, science is happening. The first excavations at the tar pits began in the early 20th century, and if you visit today, you're still likely to see scientists preserving bones or digging in the asphalt. Still, people often don't realize that it's a place for active scientific research, as the tar pits lie in the middle of Los Angeles, a city synonymous with the entertainment industry. Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, tells Mental Floss that this has led to some confusion on the part of visitors, who "think sometimes the excavators are actors, or part of an art exhibit, or robots."

3. THE ONLY DINOSAURS FOUND THERE ARE BIRDS.

After the paleontologists at La Brea have convinced you they aren't robots, they'll be quick to clear up another misconception: They don't dig up dinosaurs. (Although, technically, they do. "We have 163 species of birds," Lindsey says. Yes, birds are dinosaurs.) Most of the fossils at La Brea date from 11,000 to 50,000 years ago—about 65 million years after dinosaurs went extinct.

4. THE PRESERVATION OF FOSSILS IS EXCEPTIONAL.

Sticky asphalt is a pain to clean off the bones, but it also keeps them in pristine condition. This means scientists can look at features as subtle as the markings on carnivore teeth. One study in 2014 looked at microscopic patterns on the teeth of five species of big cats found at La Brea. The researchers concluded that the mountain lion was the only one to survive into the present because it wasn't a picky eater, and could survive changes in its food supply.

5. IT'S SO GOOD THAT THE PITS PRESERVE ENTIRE ECOSYSTEMS.

la brea tar pits asphalt
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

The big, extinct megafauna might soak up all the attention at La Brea, but paleontologists at the site have also recovered paper-thin fossils of pollen, bees, plant matter, insects, and other tiny organisms. "This is such a unique site because it's one of the only paleontological sites in the world where you can get an entire ecosystem represented," Lindsey says. "The big animals have pretty broad climate tolerances. Something like an insect has a much more narrow range."

This is important because the presence of smaller organisms can relay more specific information about the ecosystem. And because La Brea has such a long record of fossils, scientists can track how those ecosystems changed—or didn't—over time. For instance, one recent study of beetle fossils in the tar pits suggests that the climate of southern California has been relatively stable over the past 50,000 years. Yes, L.A. has had great weather for a very long time.

6. THE TAR PITS ARE DEATH TRAPS—AND YET ALSO SUPPORT LIFE.

A decade ago, scientists discovered about 200 species of microorganisms living in the asphalt with no water, little to no oxygen, and a heavy dose of toxic chemicals. Some of these microbes represented families of bacterial species that had never been seen before. By studying extremophiles thriving in such hostile environments, scientists may learn more about how life might exist on other planets.

7. ONLY ONE HUMAN SKELETON HAS BEEN FOUND THERE.

In 1914, researchers at the tar pits discovered a 9000-year-old set of human remains of a 20-something-year-old female, dubbed "La Brea Woman." Though some had speculated that she had been trapped in the asphalt or that she was Los Angeles's first homicide case, later studies suggested La Brea woman's remains had been ceremonially reburied in the asphalt, possibly with a domestic dog at her side. No other human remains have been found at La Brea. Historical accounts suggest that local tribes like the Chumash and Tongva used the asphalt from the tar pits as a glue or caulk for their wooden boats, so they must've tread carefully around the tar pits. But most of the fossils from the tar pits date from the period before humans populated the region. Lindsey says a new project will look at what was happening at the tar pits during the Holocene—the period that started after the end of the last Ice Age—which could reveal how the arrival of humans might have contributed to the extinction of big mammals.

8. A POLICE DIVER WORKING A MURDER CASE SURVIVED A PLUNGE INTO A PIT.

In 2013, a police diver willingly went 17 feet under the surface of the sludge to hunt for weapons in a cold case homicide investigation. "I've been under moving ships, in underwater reservoir sheds," LAPD Sergeant David Mascarenas told the Los Angeles Times. "This is by far the craziest thing I've ever done." Despite the bad visibility, Mascarenas was apparently able to make out underwater pinnacles of tar, and he did recover multiple items of interest. He probably also succeeded in sending the LAPD's message that they would "go as far as we can to make it as difficult for a suspect to discard evidence."

9. THERE ARE MORE PITS OUT THERE.

archaeologist digging in the tar pits
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

"There's a couple of sites that have barely been studied but would probably be as rich as the La Brea tar pits," Lindsey says. Venezuela has several tar pits, for instance, but because of the political situation, they haven't been as intensely studied.

10. THE NAME IS REDUNDANT.

"La Brea" in Spanish means "the tar." So when you say "the La Brea tar pits," you're really saying "The the tar tar pits." It's on the long list of tautological place names that also includes Lake Tahoe and the Sahara Desert.

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EEF, Black Sea MAP
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
'Ship Graveyard' Discovered in the Black Sea Provides New Insights into Maritime History
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Rendering of a Roman ship hull by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

In 2015, to learn how prehistoric humans dealt with the coastal impact of climate change, an international team of researchers in Bulgaria embarked on a multiyear geophysical survey of the Black Sea. Little did they know that the undertaking would morph into what's been dubbed "one of the largest maritime archaeological projects ever staged": As IFLScience reports, the team ended up discovering dozen of shipwrecks, dating from the 19th century all the way back to the 5th century BCE.

News of the "ship graveyard," as researchers have taken to calling it, was first announced in 2016. Following three field seasons, marine scientists have just returned from their final trip with recovered artifacts and new insights about ancient ship design and trade patterns.

Scientists from the Black Sea Maritime Project (Black Sea MAP), conducted by the University of Southampton's Center for Maritime Archaeology, used a host of high-tech equipment to survey the Black Sea's floor and take pictures. In all, they located around 60 ships spanning 2500 years of history.

The vessels were in remarkable condition, considering their age. The Black Sea is uniquely suited for preserving organic materials, as it contains two separate layers of water: a top layer that contains oxygen and salt, and a second salty layer with little oxygen or light. Organisms that eat organic matter can't survive in this environment, which is why the site's ships stayed relatively intact.

According to National Geographic, researchers were still able to make out the chisel and tool marks on planks, along with carved decorations. They also saw rigging materials, rope coils, tills, rudders, standing masts, and cargo.

Ships were discovered from the Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, with the oldest dating back to the 4th or 5th century BCE. One particularly exciting find was an ornately carved Ottoman ship, which researchers nicknamed Flower of the Black Sea due to its floral deck carvings. Meanwhile, a potentially Venetian ship from the 13th or 14th century provided scientists with a first-ever glimpse of the ships that were the precursors to those used during the Age of Exploration.

"That's never been seen archaeologically," expedition member Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz told The New York Times in 2016. "We couldn't believe our eyes."

To reconstruct how these vessels once looked, researchers used 3D software to combine thousands of still photos shot from different angles. This photogrammetric method allowed them to create digital models of the vessels and identify historical features that were once a mystery to archaeologists.

"There's one medieval trading vessel where the towers on the bow and stern are pretty much still there," said Ed Parker, CEO of Black Sea MAP, according to IFLScience. "It's as if you are looking at a ship in a movie, with ropes still on the deck and carvings in the wood."

A 3D recreation of a Roman galley discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
A 3D rendering of a Roman galley, created by Black Sea MAP project researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of a wreck from the Medieval period, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
Photogrammetric model of the stern of an Ottoman wreck, created by Black Sea MAP researchers.
EEF, Black Sea Map

A Roman shipwreck discovered by an international team of researchers in the Black Sea.
Divers with the Black Sea MAP project examining the Roman galley.
EEF, Black Sea MAP

Scientists say the ship graveyard will help them learn more about ancient trade routes, and how various Black Sea coastal communities were connected. That said, they're still committed to their initial goal of investigating ancient changes in the region's environment, using sedimentary core samples and other methods to learn more about the impact of sea level change after the last glacial cycle.

"Our primary aims are focused on the later prehistory of the region and in particular on human response to major environmental change," said Jon Adams, the project's chief investigator and a founding director of the University of Southampton's Centre for Maritime Archaeology, in a news statement. "We believe we now have an unparalleled archive of data with which to address these big questions about the human past."

[h/t IFLScience]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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