Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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.

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Drought Reveals Ancient Sites in Scotland That Can Only Be Spotted From the Air
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iStock

Typically rainy Scotland is in the middle of an unusually dry summer—and local archaeologists are taking advantage of it. As the BBC reports, the drought has revealed ancient sites, including Roman camps and Iron Age graves, that have been hidden by farm soil for years.

Historic Environment Scotland has been conducting aerial surveys of the country's landscape since the 1930s, but it's in seasons like this, when the crops recede during dry weather, that the buried remains of ancient structures are easiest to spot. Conditions this summer have been the best since 1976 for documenting archaeological sites from the sky.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

The crescent-shaped crop mark in the photo above indicates a souterrain, or underground passageway, that was built in the Scottish Borders during the Iron Age. The surveyors also found remains of a Roman temporary camp, marked by straight lines in the landscape, built in modern-day Lyne—an area south of Edinburgh already known to have housed a complex of Roman camps and forts.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

In the image below you'll see four small ditches—three circles and one square—that were likely used as burial sites during the Iron Age. When crops are planted over an ancient ditch, they have more water and nutrients to feed on, which helps them grow taller and greener. Such crops are especially visible during a drought when the surrounding vegetation is sparse and brown.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland has a team of aerial surveyors trained to spot the clues: To date, they've discovered more than 9000 archaeological sites from the air. HSE plans to continue scoping out new areas of interest as long as the dry spell lasts.

It's not just in Scotland that long-hidden settlements are coming to light: similar aerial surveys in Wales are finding them too.

[h/t BBC]

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An Ancient Sarcophagus Was Found in Egypt—And It's Never Been Opened
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iStock

In what could be the plot of the next summer blockbuster, a sealed sarcophagus has been found 16 feet underground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Science Alert reports. It’s still unknown who or what might be lying inside the nondescript black granite casket, but what’s clear is that it hasn’t been opened since it was closed more than 2000 years ago.

Ayman Ashmawy, head of the government’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, observed “a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus,” indicating it hadn't been opened, according to a Ministry of Antiquities Facebook post. Considering that many ancient tombs in Egypt have been looted over the years, an untouched sarcophagus is quite a rare find.

The sarcophagus was discovered when a site in the Sidi Gaber district, dating back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE), was inspected before construction of a building began. The casket is 104.3 inches long and 65 inches wide, making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in Alexandria. In addition, an alabaster statue of a man’s head was found in the same tomb, and some have speculated that it might depict whoever is sealed inside the sarcophagus. Live Science suggested that archaeologists may opt to inspect its contents using X-rays or computed tomography scans to prevent damage to the artifact.

Although it remains a mystery for now, Twitter has a few theories about who might be lying inside:

[h/t Science Alert]

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