La Brea Tar Pits: 3 baffling mysteries that lurk within

Last year we started inviting readers to send us their urgent questions over Los Angeles and California.

Every few weeks, we put questions to a vote, asking readers to decide which question they’d like to see answered in story form.

This question, asked by Ricky Fulton, was included in one of our latest reader polls: What are the La Brea Tar Pits? Is it a bubbling pile of tar with dinosaur bones sticking out?

You can vote in our next reader question poll here. Retrieve previous stories written as part of this project here.

There’s more than meets the eye — and noses — to the La Brea Tar Pits.

For the uninitiated, the La Brea Tar Pits are an internationally recognized geological heritage site located in downtown Los Angeles. The site is known for its many fossil quarries (referred to as “pits”) where animals, plants and insects have become stuck and preserved in the asphalt for the past 50,000 years.

For scientists, they are a unique and invaluable treasure trove of information that allows us to better understand what ancient life was like in Los Angeles.

“The kind of science you can do at the La Brea Tar Pits is stuff you really can’t do at any other paleontological site in the world, just because we have so many fossils and they’re so well preserved,” said Emily Lindsey, associate curator and director of the excavation site.

More than 3.5 million fossils have been discovered within the odorous goo – a curiosity for locals, tourists and school trippers alike.

To answer Fulton’s question right away, here’s one thing they didn’t find in the pits: dinosaurs.

That’s right: This is an Ice Age fossil site, and experts have uncovered no remains of it T rextriceratops or other non-avian dinosaurs.

Although the La Brea Tar Pits are low on dinosaur fossils, they are crammed with fossils of legendary Ice Age animals. The two most common large mammals? Say Wolves (shout out to all “Game of Thronesfans) and saber-toothed cats.

Mammoths and Colombian mastodons once made Los Angeles home. Today, their remains can be seen at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Despite the groundbreaking discoveries of scientists, mysteries continue to swirl in the oozing pits.

Sometimes, Lindsey said, things scientists do Not they find in the tar pits are as fascinating as the bones and other objects they uncover.

Lindsey described the puzzles posed by the tar pits that remained to be solved.

Here are three of the most enticing:

Why are the remains of some native species, such as mountain lions, largely missing from the tar pits?

Something strange: Scientists have discovered relatively few remains of mountain lions in the tar pits.

The P-22’s Hollywood celebrity status aside, it might seem strange to worry about the absence of some mountain lion fossils when tar pits have revealed the remains of extinct mammoths, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths.

Still, it’s strange that mountain lions—which existed in the Los Angeles area during the Ice Age—make up such a small percentage of scientists’ discoveries in the tar pits. The Tar Pits has the remains of at least seven different mountain lions, while its saber-toothed cats number between 2,500 and 3,000.

And it’s not just the mountain lions from the tar pits that are missing.

“We have very few mountain lions, very few deer… and only one raccoon,” he said. Aside from coyotes, the scientists found “very few [large mammal] ‘ice age survivors’, which is an interesting thing.

Why might mountain lions be missing from the tar pits?

The answer could help scientists paint a more detailed picture of what life was like in prehistoric Los Angeles.

Lindsey and her colleagues have some ideas. Among other possible explanations, it’s possible that, true to their name, mountain lions have always preferred to be in the highlands, not the flatter areas of present-day Los Angeles near the tar pits.

Or, it may have been that mountain lions were afraid to hunt in the same areas as saber-toothed cats. “A mountain lion looks like a house cat next to a saber-toothed cat – [it’s possible] they wanted to stay away and not be around all these big scary things.

Where is the proof of human life?

Mountain lions, raccoons and deer aren’t the only mammals to disappear from the tar pits. There is also a conspicuous lack of human remains.

Humans were here, but why can’t we find any evidence of them at the La Brea Tar Pits? Lindsay asked. “We have a human skeleton, and then we have some artifacts that are all probably from the Holocene (our current geological epoch), but we have no evidence that humans overlap or interact with megafauna” through hunting.

This is puzzling, because “many – perhaps even most – scientists think that the main cause of the extinction of megafauna was human activity,” explains Lindsey.

Similar to mountain lions, Lindsey notes that the absence of ancient humans could indicate their reluctance to hunt saber-toothed cats and other dangerous animals in the vicinity.

A group of adults and children watch a demonstration at the Fossil Lab

People watch a demonstration at the Fossil Lab at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

“It could be that the culture that was here was adapted to the coast and didn’t need to challenge, say, a pack of dire wolves to hunt a horse or a camel,” he said. “They could stay close to the shore and collect shellfish.”

Why have large mammals started disappearing and what does it tell us about our future?

Once upon a time there were giant mammals that roamed vast areas of the earth.

“There were giant wombats in Australia, there were giant lemurs in Madagascar, there were giant sloths and armadillos in South America,” Lindsey said.

So, Lindsey asks, why don’t we have saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and giant ground sloths roaming Wilshire Boulevard today?

A dramatic change has occurred. “At the end of the ice age, something happened that wiped out the upper end of the body size distribution everywhere except Africa,” she said. “This is the largest extinction event since the dinosaur extinction event 66 million years ago.”

Even more chilling, the loss of giant mammals is being recognized as “the first impetus in the biodiversity crisis we’re in today,” he said.

Why did this extinction event happen? “Most scientists think humans must have played a pretty significant role in this extinction. But the other thing that was happening was that we were coming out of the ice age, the last big episode of global warming,” he said.

“Understanding how climate change interacts with human activities, how that affects ecosystems, and how these two processes may intersect to drive extinctions is incredibly important.”

The La Brea Tar Pits are positioned to help solve the mystery of why precisely giant mammals went extinct, due to the size and scope of its findings, which can be radiocarbon dated and matched to known changes that have occurred. simultaneously with humans and the climate.

Two people kneel on the ground carefully digging up fossils

Two volunteers dig up fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

On the flip side of the coin, 90% of the species found in the tar pits have not gone extinct. “We have tons of rabbits, rodents, lizards, bugs and songbirds on our record that are still living in the Los Angeles area today,” Lindsey said via email.

“We are a record of survival and resilience,” he said, which begs some questions. “What made the mountain lions successful? What made coyotes so successful? What made Oaks successful?

Ash the climate crisis worse today, the answers to these mysteries could chart a path for the future.

“The next few decades or several centuries will be characterized by really extreme global change,” Lindsey said. “How can we use this information to help life succeed moving forward?”

This existential question should give you something to think about next time you pass the iconic (and heartbreaking) gargantuan statues of the Tar Pits off Wilshire Boulevard.

This story was written directly in response to a reader’s question about the La Brea Tar Pits. Have a question about living in Los Angeles or California? Ask us!

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