Fossil Lab

What happens after the fossils at La Brea Tar Pits are excavated? This is where you find out.

Onlookers watch scientists in the Fossil Lab

General Info

Open daily 9:30 am to 5 pm
Free with museum admission
Free to Members

Paleontology in Action

The Fossil Lab is an active paleontological laboratory inside the museum. Watch volunteers and scientists clean and conserve the fossils that we discover in the Tar Pits. These remains of plants and animals from the past 50,000 years show us how wildlife changes as climate changes. Paleontologists are now working on specimens from Project 23, the treasure trove of fossils that was discovered during the construction of a LACMA parking lot in 2006!

People stand outside the Fossil Lab and look in

Your virtual field trip starts here!

Photo of the tar pits fossil lab collection
Photograph of people looking at the Tar Pits Fossil Lab
Analisa Rivera, a UCLA senior, examining microfossils in the Fossil Lab.
volunteer working in fossil lab at tar pits
behind the scenes tour at the tar pits fossil lab

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Your virtual field trip starts here!

How To Prepare a Fossil

When a specimen arrives in the Fossil Lab, the first step in its preparation is removing the asphalt, a highly viscous or gooey, black, tar-like substance. Hardened asphalt is carefully removed by soaking the bones in a solvent (n-propyl bromide) overnight. A second cleaning process removes any residual clay and silt using water and foam tip applicators. Larger fossils, and fossils with many cavities such as skulls and vertebrae, can sometimes take several days to clean completely. Every fossil dug up from the Tar Pits has a characteristic brown hue as a lasting stain from the asphalt.

Sometimes specimens can become damaged or cracked during the fossilization process. In the Fossil Lab the team can repair or reconstruct the bone using a transparent, glue-like adhesive (Paraloid B-72). After each bone is cleaned, and repaired if necessary, it is then transferred to our collections team.

Photo of a dire wolf bone being cleaned at
Photo of microfossils being sorted in the Tar Pits micro lab
Photograph of the Fossil Lab
Photo of fossil lab programs at tar pits
examining a specimen in the Museum’s Fossil Lab.
Photograph of two gloved hands cleaning the tar off a fossil bone

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Microfossil Sorting

Microfossils are tiny fossils less than 1 cm in size, such as small skeletal remains, teeth, bones, plants, insects, shells, and more. They are found in the matrix (sediment) that was removed from the fossil cleaning process. Watch as our staff and volunteers peer through microscopes and patiently sort through the matrix, grain by grain. These microfossils offer our scientists a wealth of knowledge about the past environments and climate of Ice Age L.A. during the late Pleistocene epoch.

Live Excavation

See science in action at La Brea Tar Pits.