It turns out L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits are way more interesting than our elementary school textbooks made them out to be!
You remember reading about the La Brea Tar Pits in science class, right? I was fascinated by them as a kid and I couldn’t believe they still existed, smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. I always pictured a bubbling pool of tar, surrounded by traffic and towering buildings and filled with the plainly visible fossilized fangs of sabertooths.
As you can imagine, I was dying to see these tar pits in person.
And I finally got the opportunity a couple of months ago, when we went to visit family in LA. What I found there surprised me– for many reasons– and I can’t resist sharing what I learned with all of you. Whether you’re planning a visit or you’re just curious about the tar pits and want to know more, these are the secrets I discovered that BLEW. MY. MIND….
1. The La Brea Tar Pits are part of a beautiful public park on LA’s Miracle Mile, which means you can see them FOR FREE.
I know, I know…. It’s hard to believe anything in LA is free– but you can theoretically visit the La Brea Tar Pits at Hancock Park without paying a dime, as long as you park on the street (lot parking is $5) and don’t go inside the Page Museum. (Truth: You will definitely want to go inside the museum unless you’re just stopping by for a few minutes to check it out, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) In addition to tar pit gazing, Hancock Park is a great place for a picnic or kite flying if the wind is up.
Also free is Hancock Park’s Pleistocene Garden, pictured above, which contains native vegetation from the Los Angeles Basin between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. The garden was designed based on 35 years of tar pit plant research. Signs in the garden clue you in on what you’re seeing and why it matters.
The smelly, bubbling tar pits are, as I suspected, surrounded by fences. (Parents of todders can now breathe a sigh of relief.) You can even check out an active excavation pit, again, for FREE! The only things you won’t see for free are the fossils themselves- They are inside the museum. And they are incredible. But we’ll get to them in a minute. First, more about those pits.
2. The tar pits aren’t really tar at all.
Weird, right? It turns out we should be calling them ASPHALT pits, because that’s what the black goo is. Wondering where this asphalt is even coming from? Here’s the short version: This part of California used to be under water. Decaying sea creatures created fossil fuel deposits over a period of millions of years, and when ocean levels receded and this land was exposed, the fossil fuels began to be covered by layers of gravel, sand and clay– the products of erosion from nearby hills. The fossil fuels have been seeping through fissures in the sediment for the last 40,000 years and in low-lying areas, those deposits pool, creating– you guessed it– tar pits. I mean asphalt pits. Let’s just agree to keep calling them tar pits, though, so that no one gets confused.
Here’s another thing about the tar pits that might surprise you:
3. The tar pits are only a few inches deep!
Did you always imagine prehistoric animals sinking into the tar pit goo like it was a sticky quicksand, until they finally sank out of sight? Oh, you poor thing. No. That’s not how it happened at all. Experts believe animals accidentally wandered into the tar pits when they got covered by leaves and dirt and didn’t look so much like a BUBBLING POOL OF CERTAIN DEATH. Scientists believe animals only occasionally got stuck to the point that they weren’t able to free themselves– If a large animal got caught in one of the La Brea tar pits only once every ten years, it would be enough to account for the one million + bones that have been discovered there.
Speaking of bones, a whole bunch of them are on display inside the Page Museum. Basic admission is $12 for adults, $9 for students and seniors 62+, $5 for kids up to age 12, and free for ages 2 and under. For $4 extra per person, you can also get tickets to see either a 3D movie about the Ice Age or an interactive puppet show. We sprang for the movie and the kids enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not a must-do to enjoy the experience. What is a must-do is the guided tour that’s free with admission.
In addition to providing extensive background information on the tar pits, the tour is the only way you’ll get a chance to see this, an actual tar pit that was excavated and then left in its natural state. Seeing the actual placement of the fossils as they were found in one of the pits is really fascinating. If you’re wondering why there’s such a crazy jumble of animal bones here, well, there’s an explanation for that, which leads us to another fun fact:
4. For every one herbivore found in the La Brea Tar Pits, excavators have found nine carnivores.
This is because of something called entrapment, a term you’ll hear a lot at the museum. Imagine a woolly mammoth gets caught in a tar pit– He’s going to attract predators, from sabertoothed cats to dire wolves and birds of prey, some of whom get caught in the asphalt themselves. Got it? Good. Now you have an entertaining story to tell at your next cocktail party!
5. More Ice Age and bird fossils have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits than any other site in the world.
And this is what makes the museum itself so cool- Your brain can’t even comprehend how much has been discovered until you go inside and start seeing some of these fossils for yourself.
This particular exhibit at the museum is one I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. This is an entire wall of Dire Wolf skulls— (YES, those awesome Game of Thrones wolves actually existed!) and these are just a fraction of the skulls that have been excavated from the pits so far. I could go on and on with fun facts about the many animal and plant fossils that have been discovered over the years, but here are just a few:
From the La Brea Tar Pits website: Since 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates. In addition, 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. It is estimated that the collections at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum contain about three million items. Our current Project 23 excavation may, when completed, double this number.
More than 4,000 dire wolves have been found so far, making it the most common animal found in the tar pits. Saber-toothed cats are second at 2,000 and coyotes are third.
Wondering why I keep calling them saber-toothed cats instead of tigers? These guys are most closely related to the modern day bobcat, not the tiger. Some of the saber-toothed cat fossils found in the pits show evidence of healed bone fractures, injuries that should have been catastrophic. This has led scientists to hypothesize that these animals were social and lived in packs, protecting their injured and elderly members.
6. Thanks to the La Brea Tar Pits, we know that LIONS used to roam parts of the United States!
American Lions have been found in the tar pits- Since far fewer of them have been found than other carnivores, scientists they may have been smarter than their fellow predators. They are the largest cat found in the tar pits– their tails alone were about four feet long– and paleontologists believe they are so closely related to the African Lion that they’ve placed them in the same species.
7. Mammoths and Mastodons have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
As some of you know, I’ve become a little bit obsessed with fossils— That’s why I know the difference between a Mastodon and a Woolly Mammoth. Mammoths were larger and grazed on the plains, while Mastodons were smaller and preferred wooded areas- Their molars helped them to reach for twigs and branches. (Mastodons have been found here in Tennessee.) I think it’s kind of cool that both animals could be found in the California area during the Ice Age.
8. An incredible variety of extinct animals has been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits.
There were giant ground sloths, Western Horses, Ancient Bison, Dwarf Pronghorns, prehistoric camels, three-toed tapirs and llamas. Many of them are on display in the museum, including the super-sized Short-Nosed Bear, pictured above– the largest carnivore found at the tar pits.
9. Many of the Ice Era-age animas found in the La Brea Tar Pits are still around today.
They include dogs, gray foxes, pumas, bobcats, jaguars, rabbits, weasels, raccoons, mice and skunks, as well as grasshoppers, pillbugs, termites, gopher snakes, garter snakes, the western rattlesnake, the western pond turtle, rainbow trout, frogs, freshwater mollusks and many different kinds of birds
10. The bird fossils found at the Tar Pits are kind of a big deal.
It turns out bird fossils are rare because their bones are hollow and don’t tend to withstand the test of time. Birds that fell victim to the tar pits, however, were preserved by the asphalt. More than 100,000 bird fossils have been found at La Brea, including song birds, water birds, and birds of prey. The largest bird found was Merriam’s Teratorn, which stood more than two and half feet tall and had a wingspan of about 12 feet!
11. La Brea paleontologists spend a whole lot of time sorting microfossils.
Microfossils are the fossilized microscopic remains of plants, insects, and small animals. You can watch them doing this painstaking work at the fishbowl lab inside the museum. It seems sort of boring, but it’s actually very important work– 158 species of plants have been found in the pits, helping scientists to understand the climate and conditions of the Ice Age, and how this changed over time.
You’ll appreciate the La Brea Tar Pits even more when you realize that the asphalt has essentially preserved a complete prehistoric ecosystem for scientists to analyze. The entire food chain is right there in the muck, and you have to admit, that’s pretty exciting!
12. Only one human has been found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
The bones belonged to a young woman, believed to be between the ages of 18 and 25. She lived about 9,000 years ago, she was about 4′ 8″ and other than that, not much is known about her.
What scientists do know is that humans have been taking advantage of the tar pits for the last 10,000 or so years. Native Americans used the asphalt to waterproof their canoes and baskets. During the Spanish occupation of California in the 1700s, the land was used as a cattle ranch. In the mid-1800s, an American family bought the land, mined the asphalt, and began doing limited excavations of the tar pits for bones. The first large-scale excavation took place in 1913 and scientists have continued excavating the pits ever since.
13. Excavations are still ongoing to this day.
In Pit 91, scientists are removing fossils in three foot long, six inch deep square grids, recovering about 1,000 bones per 2-month excavation period. Started in 1969, Pit 91 is the longest-running urban excavation site in the world.
Scientists are also excavating fossils discovered when construction started on a nearby underground parking garage in 2006. 16 new fossil deposits were identified and researchers were allowed to build large wooden boxes around each deposit and remove them to the park property. Called Project 23, they’re now opening one box at a time and painstakingly sorting through and cataloging what they find.
According to the Tar Pits website, researchers are making new discoveries almost every day. Project 23 has turned out to be a treasure trove of Ice Age information and scientists fully expect to discover more new plants and animals inside these boxes.
14. You can actually touch the ‘tar’ at the La Brea Tar Pits.
And don’t worry- You don’t have to worry about entrapment! You’ll find tiny puddles of asphalt all over the park grounds, mostly around the pond. It’s really fun to see what it feels like.
Especially if you’re nine.
15. The La Brea Tar Pits are in close proximity to the LA County Museum of Art, the Zimmer Children’s Museum, The Grove, and Rodeo Drive.
This means you really have no excuse not to go the next time you’re sightseeing in LA, especially if you have kids. Expect to spend about two to three hours here. The guided tour takes about 45-minutes, the movie is about 20 minutes long, and the museum itself takes 30-45 minutes.
Today, more than two months after our visit, my 12-year-old continues to talk about our La Brea Tar Pits visit. My whole family ended up loving the pits and I’d enthusiastically recommend a tar pit visit to anyone, at any age. It gave us a much deeper understanding of our earth’s history and convinced my children that the Ice Age is totally cool.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
This 30-page study guide from the La Brea Tar Pits is easy-to-understand and very thorough. I’m printing it out for my kids to read this summer. It’s an invaluable resource if you’re visiting the pits.
This timeline gives you a great overview of how the tar pits fit into our earth’s history.
The La Brea Tar Pits Blog has all kinds of cool updates on what paleontologists are finding as they continue excavating the pits.
My son absolutely LOVED this mammoth excavation kit and he continues to play with the mammoth he constructed from the bones he uncovered. Coming in at under ten dollars, this is a GREAT learning toy. He is now begging for the sabertooth kit!
Tar Pits’ Bees Connect California’s Past to Its Present (National Geographic)
This short Discovery Channel video has cool recreations of ancient animals getting stuck in the muck.
Here are more quick video segments, this time from the BBC’s Ice Age Death Trap series on the La Brea Tar Pits. A few more clips from the program are available here.