I don’t remember the term “bucket list” from my childhood, but if I had made one back in the mid-1970’s as a seven-year-old, it would have most certainly included a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. I had a great plastic model of a tar pit made by Aurora Prehistoric Scenes that was one of my very favorite things. And yes, although it has suffered the wear and tear that many favored “toys” experience…I still have it, or at least what’s left of it. So the dream to visit this site started early for me. I have been fortunate to be able to fulfill that dream, and now I’ve been there quite a few times. Located right off Wilshire Blvd. in Hancock Park, in the heart of Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile shopping district, the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum complex is a National Natural Landmark, a paleontological treasure of vast proportion, and one of my very favorite places to visit.
The famous La Brea tar pits are formed by crude oil that in certain places seeps through fissures in the crust of the earth. The lightest part of the oil eventually evaporates, leaving sticky pools of asphalt on the surface. These seeps can be found throughout Hancock Park, on land that was once known as Rancho La Brea. The stereotype of the ancient animal caught in a deep pool of tar has given way to a modern understanding that most animals were probably caught in a rather shallow layer of this liquid asphalt. Occasionally methane that is released in the pools causes bubbles to form on the surface, and that gives the impression that the tar is actually very hot. It is not, but it is as sticky today as it was when animals were trapped there during the Pleistocene.
When you walk around the park you may notice a number of spots where asphalt has seeped a little through the grass, or near a sidewalk. It is very easy to imagine before human occupation how these asphalt pools would draw and trap animals who were drawn to what they hoped was a potential water source, get stuck and die, and then draw other predators looking for an easy meal. The death trap events didn’t have to occur that frequently to yield the bones that are found in La Brea: there have been somewhere around 4,000 dire wolf remains found in the tar pits, but the time period of the death traps cover over 30,000 years of history. So even if they end up with double the amount of wolf fossils someday, that still represents only one wolf dying in the tar pits about every four years. So it wasn’t like animals were all piling on top of each other relatively quickly.
The museum that houses many of the specimens from the nearby tar pits was formerly known as the George C. Page Museum. Recently the complex has been renamed the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, located in the George C. Page Building. Near the building and all over Hancock Park, one can find various “tar pits” that paleontologists either have in the past or are presently excavating. Pit 91 is one of the older and larger excavation pits and is accessible to the public. A viewing gallery allows visitors to see what a tar pit looks like up close, and even see some of the bones coming out of the tar! During the summers, researchers actively search through this large pit which originally opened in 1915, was closed for many years, then reopened in 1969. Pit 91 has been open to the public every summer since 1984.
It is hard to overstate how important the tar pits at La Brea have been to our understanding of North American flora and fauna that lived in the late Pleistocene epoch. Animal remains from the site have been dated from about 40,000 years ago to about 8,000 years ago. In the vastness of geologic time these animals lived practically yesterday, at least compared to the time gap of 65 million years since the non-avian dinosaurs perished at the end of the Cretaceous period. By the end stages of the Pleistocene, humans were certainly occupying the same spaces around Rancho La Brea. In fact, there has been one set of paleolithic human remains found in the tar pits, and the female remains have been dated to around 9,000 years ago. So while the bones in La Brea are old, no, there are no dinosaurs in the tar pits. Fortunately, the creatures that have been discovered there are no less interesting!
Some of the most iconic “ice age” creatures are well known largely from the abundance of fossils from La Brea. Probably the most famous is the Smilodon, or “saber-tooth cat,” California’s state fossil. It is still often referred to as a “saber-tooth tiger” but Smilodon was not closely related to tigers or any modern felines living today. One of the most common predators found in the asphalt seeps, the Smilodon was a powerful ambush hunter equipped with enormous canine teeth capable of slicing through the rough hide of even the largest animals. There are several representations of Smilodon at La Brea: my two favorites are probably the wonderful skeletal mount in the picture below and an animatronic display that shows the creature leaping on the back of a large ground sloth. My sons particularly enjoyed the animatronic creature–the sounds alone drew their interest and it was fascinating to watch the slow-motion “attack” on the sloth. Although Smilodon was not the only prehistoric saber-tooth cat in North America (there were many, in fact), it is far and away the most well-known and most studied, all thanks to the thousands of bones found at Rancho La Brea. It is estimated that bones from over 2,000 individual Smilodons have been discovered so far in the tar pits.
The most common predator found in the tar pits is the dire wolf, or Canis dirus. A competitor of Smilodon for large prey, over four thousand individual dire wolf remains have been found. Slightly larger than the modern gray wolf, the dire wolf had much stronger jaws and teeth, and was a fearsome predator in its own right. Thought to be pack hunters similar to modern wolves, the dire wolf is known to have been a predator of large animals, including sloths, camels, bison, and horses. At the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, an exhibit wall of dire wolf skulls is a real highlight: over 400 skulls are lined up showing the fairly large variation between individual wolves. It is an impressive sight!
There have been over 650 animal species that have been discovered at La Brea, including a remarkably high number of large animals. The most common large herbivore that has been found in the tar pits is the Bison antiquus, the direct ancestor of the modern bison. Beautiful skeletal mounts of most of the large creatures from La Brea are presented in the museum. The Columbian mammoth display is particularly awe-inspiring, although the mount is a composite of a number of such creatures. A largely complete mammoth specimen was found in 2007 when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art started work on a large new underground parking structure in Hancock Park. Workers discovered an asphalt deposit that included over 80% of the bones of a partially articulated Columbian mammoth that the museum has nicknamed “Zed.” In the museum, the large laboratory and paleontology prep room is visible to the public through large glass windows and visitors are free to watch researchers clean and preserve Zed’s bones. Hopefully someday Zed will replace the mammoth currently on display.
Based on their distribution throughout the world today and modern history, most Americans don’t realize perhaps that horses and camels both evolved in ancient North America and then spread elsewhere around the globe. In both cases they went extinct in North America but survived elsewhere, with horses only reintroduced in more modern times. The La Brea Tar Pits & Museum display a striking skeletal mount of an ancient North American camel called Camelops hesternus. The extinct “Western Horse” Equus occidentalis can also be found on display. Another large mammal that has been found in the tar pits is Paramylodon, better known as Harlan’s ground sloth. This very large sloth has been found throughout North America and the species survived for a very long time, almost 5 million years, before going extinct alongside many of the other large North American mammals at the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
Hundreds of types of smaller animals have also been recovered from La Brea, including ancient coyotes, pronghorns such as Capromeryx, and over 100 species of birds. Quite a few are displayed in full skeletal mounts in the museum. One overhead specimen is the very large extinct bird Teratornis, a bird of prey that resembles a vulture but genetically is closer to modern storks. This huge bird had a wingspan of about 12 feet, larger than the modern California condor.
One of the more rare animals recovered is the american lion, an extinct fearsome predator that was larger than modern African lions. It is thought to be one of the largest cats to have ever lived, and the majority of what we know about this cat comes from remains found at La Brea. There have been somewhere around 100 individuals that have been found so far. One of the nice things about the displays at La Brea is that they have taken a lot of time and effort to create some interesting dioramas, with a lot of murals in the background that show how various scenes might have looked back in the Pleistocene.
WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS?
Well, there are no dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum…dinosaurs died out roughly 65 million years before the tar pits formed and started trapping animals. But if you don’t like prehistoric animals, then there is not a whole lot that will interest you here. Still, you are probably in luck! Right next to the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum in Hancock Park is the world-class Los Angeles County Museum of Art where you can contemplate whether or not that Magritte is in fact a pipe. But if that’s not your thing, then a couple hundred yards away is the Petersen Automotive Museum, an amazing collection of cars and exhibits about the automobile, particularly highlighting its role in California culture. And if you just want to go shopping, well, the Miracle Mile shopping district of Los Angeles is all around, if you want to go a little further the high-end Rodeo Drive shopping area is just a couple miles west down Wilshire.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The museum is terrific, yet is improved every time I visit. Relatively new features include a theater in which visitors can watch the 3D film Titans of the Ice Age and a live 15-minute stage show called “Ice Age Encounters” that features a large saber-tooth cat puppet and multimedia presentation. I can’t think of a single thing I would do to improve this museum, yet I have great confidence that they will continue to improve anyway.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
We have been fortunate: my oldest son has been to the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum a number of times, my youngest just a few. Every time we have gone we have had a great time here. After you park nearby, the walk around the grounds of the park is where the fun starts with large sculptures of prehistoric animals all around, including the heartbreaking scene with the baby mammoth calling out to the “stuck” parent in the largest asphalt pool. Wandering the park and finding asphalt seeps in the ground has become another fun activity for us, and that’s all before we step into the great museum. Once inside, my boys always spend a lot of time struggling with the “test your strength against the tar pit” pull bar which is a lot of fun to play with. The exhibits are very well done, my oldest loves the wall of dire wolf skulls; my youngest liked the animatronic mammoth and Smilodon/ground sloth scene the best. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful gift shop, it is large and has a lot of really nice items to commemorate your visit.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
If you are just visiting the museum, an hour should be plenty. But if you also want to walk around the grounds and explore any of the “tar pits” that they are digging in, plan more time. It’s a beautiful park, a great respite in the middle of America’s second-largest city.
The La Brea Tar Pits are a wonderful preserve of ancient history right in the heart of midtown Los Angeles, and the remarkable collection of animals that have been found in the pits over the past hundred or so years has shed an incredible amount of light onto our understanding of both ancient and modern animal life in North America. Many species of Pleistocene animals would barely be known without the finds at La Brea, and the continued work here in the tar pits ensures that we will eventually know much, much more about them. If you are planning a Disneyland or Universal Studios vacation with the kids, take a day off in the middle of your trip and head to Hancock Park, you won’t regret spending a couple of hours here–and it may be the most memorable part of your trip!
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur/Fossil Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs/Prehistoric Animals on Display: (8.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (9.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8.0 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (9.0 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8.0 out of 10)
And here it is…what is left of my childhood model. Still love it!