Tuesday, May 17, 2011

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits are apart of The Page Museum which is located in the heart of Los Angeles in Hancock Park.  The tar pits, which are within the Mexican land grant of Rancho La Brea, are one of the world's most famous fossil sites and has the largest and most diverse array of extinct Ice Ages plants and animals in the world.

Upon my visit I knew nothing about what was actually at the site.  So I was very interested in learning the history of the site as well as seeing the fossils.  We started by watching one of the two informational videos on the area and its history. The video was about 10 minutes long and explained how the tar pits were discovered.

A group of Spanish explores led by Gaspar de Portola made the first written record of the tar pits in 1769.  Union Oil geologist W.W. Orcutt is the first person to actually receive credit for finding the bones.  In 1901 he found prehistoric animal bones preserved in pools of asphalt on the then Hancock Ranch. These would be the first of many fossils excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits.

The tar pits are made up of heavy oil or what we call tar which seeps up from the earth as oil.  The oil reaches the surface and forms pools at several locations in the park, becoming asphalt as the lighter fractions of the petroleum biodegrade. This seepage has been happening for tens of thousands of years. From time to time, the asphalt would form a deposit thick enough to trap animals, and the surface would be covered with layers of water, dust, and leaves. Animals would wander in to drink, become trapped, and eventually die. Predators would also enter to eat the trapped animals and become stuck.
After the video we started on the free guided tour.  We stayed on the tour for about 20 minutes then realized we would be better off exploring on our own.  A lot of the information the tour guide mentioned was redundant from the video and we were anxious to actually see the pits. We went outside to see some of the old sites which are covered up now but still marked with plaques.  There is one site that is open but the excavation is on hold due to work on another project.  As we walked around outside we could notice areas where there is still a sticky tar substance seeping up.  In particular in stream-like areas which is also denoted by signs saying don't play in the streams.  There is also a flagrant stench of tar around the area which serves as a reminder that oil is still in the ground.

Among the animals found are saber-toothed cats and mammoths which roamed the Los Angeles Basin between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago.  Outside the Museum, in Hancock Park, life-size replicas of several extinct mammals are featured.

Our visit was on a weekday when there weren't many people around.  We parked on the street to avoid the fee for parking.  Admission is $8 with a student ID, $11 for adults without an ID, and free for USC students, so I lucked out by having my USC ID on me!  This is an interesting museum and quite unique.  I would recommend going for a visit.

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