10 Fascinating Facts About the La Brea Tar Pits

Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
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.

Laser Scans Detect Hidden Buildings and Tunnels Beneath Alcatraz Prison

iStock.com/f8grapher
iStock.com/f8grapher

Isolated in the San Francisco Bay and surrounded by steep cliff faces, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary seemed like the most secure place to keep dangerous criminals in the mid-20th century. But it's recently come to light that every inmate on Alcatraz Island lived above a series of potential escape routes that predated the prison's construction, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

In a new study published in the journal Near Surface Geophysics, archaeologists reported their discovery of structures and artifacts beneath the Alcatraz prison yard, including underground buildings, tunnels, and ammunition magazines. Guided by historical maps, documents, and photographs, they used laser scanning technology and ground-penetrating radar to locate the subterranean fortress close to the surface.

The site dates back to the mid-19th century, when Alcatraz Island was used for military purposes. The same natural features that would later make Alcatraz an appealing prison also made it an ideal coastal fortification. Enough brick buildings were built there to house 200 soldiers and enough food was shipped in to feed them for four months.

But the fortification wasn't used for its original purpose for very long. It was transformed into the West Coast's official military prison during the Civil War, and in the 1930s, the government turned it into a federal prison. Instead of tearing down the forts and tunnels leftover from its military days, workers left them intact and built over them to save money. Archaeologists plan to investigate the underground structures further without disturbing the historic site.

Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, so the underground tunnels no longer pose a security problem. Today the island is part of the U.S. National Park Service and is a popular tourist attraction.

[h/t San Fransisco Chronicle]

The Site Where Julius Caesar Was Assassinated Will Open to the Public in 2021

iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina
iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina

Besides being a sanctuary for stray cats, Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome is best known as the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed 22 times by assassins in 44 BCE. As the city's oldest open-air square, the spot is an important piece of Roman history, but it's fallen into disrepair. Now, Condé Nast Traveler reports that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen to the public following a $1.1 million restoration project.

The site includes four ancient temples, a medieval brick tower, and the ruins of the senate house where Caesar was murdered. About 20 feet below street level, it was excavated under the rule of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, and has remained largely closed to the public since. Today, Largo di Torre Argentina is overgrown and accessible only to the feral cats that live there.

On Monday, February 25, Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen in the second half of 2021. To get the site ready for the public, the city will add restrooms, install lights, and build walkways that allow visitors to explore the area. Stone ruins, some of which are stacked into piles, will be secured, and artifacts currently sitting in storage will be moved to a museum. The one area the project will avoid is the corner where the cat sanctuary is located.

Rome, of course, is filled with ancient ruins—some that residents weren't even aware of until recently. In 2014, a 2000-year-old Roman road was unearthed during the construction of a McDonald's.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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