LOS ANGELES — This summer, visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum will explore new exhibits, and encounter scientists and excavators hard at work on ground-breaking research projects and in new and historic fossil digs.
As part of the Natural History Family of Museums along with the Natural History Museum of L.A. County in Exposition Park and the Hart Museum in Newhall, the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum represents the world’s only active, urban fossil excavation site. The Tar Pits are a key resource in understanding what Los Angeles was like in the late Ice Age.
First in an occasional series of places to visit around Los Angeles.
Among the things happening at the museum this summer is the opening of the historic Observation Pit to all guests of the museum.
The Observation Pit, which first opened in 1954 when it was the only “museum” in Hancock Park, re-opened in 2014 after a building refresh and conservation of the fossils inside. Visitors will see bones of numerous Ice Age creatures jumbled together in what the museum calls “fossil gumbo.”
Visual guides will help identify the bones that make up the cluster, including a juvenile mastodon skull and jaw, a giant sloth pelvis, a camel skull and several skulls from dire wolves and saber-toothed cats.
Outside in the park area, visitors will find even more to do and see at Pit 91. Wednesdays through Sundays all summer long, staff and volunteers will be back at work in Pit 91, one of the original excavation sites and the most excavated pit in the park.
The Pit has already been excavated down to about 15 feet, and about 5 more feet of fossils will be excavated before hitting the bottom of the deposit. Visitors also will be able to see large bones from western horses, sloths, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves awaiting excavation.
Last summer, work focused on microfossils and resulted in the recovery of bones from small birds, snakes, and lizards — with many more fossils left to find and the whole summer left to find them, there’s no telling what might be discovered in this historic Tar Pits dig this year.
Since 2008, the museum has been hard at work on Project 23, an above-ground excavation of fossils discovered during nearby construction. Project 23 gives visitors a unique look at La Brea’s fossil deposits, and the chance to see excavators working on site.
Starting this summer, a brand-new box of Project 23, Box 13, will be opening, which contains the “youngest” fossils from the site, at roughly 30,000 years old. The fossils from Box 13 will become part of a research project on ancient food webs to help scientists understand Southern California’s ecosystems and climate between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Researchers will examine the remains of small mammals and plants, which are excellent indicators of environmental conditions. Visitors will be able to watch excavators extract fossils from this new box outside in the park area, and then head inside the museum to the Fossil Lab, where they can see paleontological preparators cleaning and sorting the new material.
Kids looking to try their hand at microfossil sorting will find volunteers stationed inside the museum ready to offer a quick training. They will work with volunteers to learn how to identify “fossil” material, and then get hands-on, using paintbrushes and sorting trays to divide matrix into the categories that are used in the museum’s Fossil Lab — bones, plant matter, shells, insects, and discard.
This year has brought a bevy of new discoveries at the museum from work being done on subways being built by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority all over the city.
Fossils from a mammoth and camel were unearthed during work on the Purple Line on Wilshire Boulevard, while remains of an ancient sloth and bison emerged from construction under Crenshaw.
Starting in late June, scientists from the La Brea Tar Pits will be partnering with Cogstone, the California-based mitigation company overseeing the construction digs, to help prepare the baby mammoth skull discovered under Wilshire. Visitors can watch the action unfold at the Fossil Lab, where staff will be using new preparation techniques on this unique specimen.
Next door to the Fossil Lab at the “Window into the Collection,” guests will see museum scientists using three-dimensional scanning and printing fossil material — the latest tool in the process of digitizing the museum’s collections, which creates an accurate record of the size, shape and irregularities of each fossil. Scientists worldwide will be able to access this data, creating greater access to La Brea’s world-class collections, opening new avenues of research, and enabling more in-depth analysis on the museum’s fossils. Three-D replicas maintain accurate records of the fossils so no information is lost during destructive analyses such as radio-carbon dating.
To date, everything from saber-toothed cat arm bones to rabbit jaws have been scanned. A full scan only takes a few hours, so there will always be something new for visitors to see.
The asphalt seeps at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum represent the only active urban Ice Age excavation site in the world. Outside, all year long, visitors can watch paleontological excavators carefully extract fossils of animals trapped in the seeps 10,000 to 40,000 years ago in both Project 23 and Pit 91.
The mid-century Observation Pit, the first museum in Hancock Park, is refurbished and opened for all museum guests. Inside, visitors see the next step of the paleontology process, as scientists and volunteers clean, repair, and identify fossils in the transparent Fossil Lab.
The museum displays the final result: extraordinary specimens of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, dire wolves, and mastodons, as well as fossilized remains of microscopic plant remains, insects and reptiles.
La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is located at 5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Information: (323) 857-6300 or visit www.tarpits.org.