Our Research

close up of sabertooth skull in fossil lab collections tar pits

The collections at Rancho La Brea are still at the core of late Pleistocene North American research today.

Our staff, professional paleontologists, and graduate students frequent the collections throughout the year to study a range of topics. Many questions still remain to be answered. If you are interested in using our specimens for research, please visit the Our Collections page.

Collaborative Research Projects

Large multi-institutional projects are exciting opportunities to bring experts from different disciplines together to help answer some of our pressing research questions.



So much still to learn!

Today's research ranges from traditional taxonomic descriptions to addressing functional morphology questions to investigating how ecosystems have been altered under changing climatic conditions over the past 50,000 years in the Los Angeles region. The ability to directly date our fossils using the unstable isotope carbon-14 enables us to pair these results with cutting-edge techniques such as stable isotopes, dental microwear, and collagen sequencing to help us understand the factors that influenced the current distributions of much of our flora and fauna before humans changed the landscape. This provides a deeper time perspective by which we can understand the past and present, as well as anticipate future ecosystems in order to support their resilience. Hundreds of publications have resulted from many years of research. You can find these citations below split into broad categories. You can also download La Brea and Beyond: The Paleontology of Asphalt-Preserved Biotas for free!

The human story: Over 100 'artifacts' have been recovered from Rancho La Brea although none have been dated to older than 10,000 years.

The number of bird bones recovered from Rancho La Brea is particularly noteworthy. Thanks to the asphalt we probably have one of the world's largest fossil bird collections with many more yet to be described.

Fossil plant material from Rancho La Brea is preserved in 3D in the form of pollen, seeds, cones, leaves, and wood. Much research is still needed on the botanical collections.

Famous as a carnivore trap, Rancho La Brea also attracts vertebrate paleontologists who are interested in studying carnivores.

A hot topic today, clues to how plants and animals responded to changing climates could lie hidden in the collections at Rancho La Brea.

Large numbers of arthropods have been recovered at Rancho La Brea, many preserved in 3D, although most are disarticulated. Beetles are by far the largest group but many more studies still remain to be done.

Plants and animals have changed in response to changing conditions in their environments. Many of these can be seen in the fossil record at Rancho La Brea.

In paleontology, biology, and ecology, extinction is the cessation of existence of a species or group of plants or animals.

Functional morphology involves the study of relationships between the structure of an organism and the function of its various parts. How did saber-toothed cats use their canines, for example.

A unique combination of complex geologic events are responsible for the rich accumulations of fossils found at Rancho La Brea. Oil formed, tectonic actions forced it to the surface, and sediments were deposited from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Many of the large herbivores from Rancho La Brea have been described but questions about their diets, migrations patterns, and distributions still remain to be studied.

People have been drawn to Rancho La Brea for hundreds of years and so we have a rich historical record as well as a prehistoric one.

The study of the phylum Mollusca which includes snails, slugs, clams, and squid among others is called Malacology. At Rancho La Brea we have a collection of freshwater Mollusca, much of which remains to be studied.

There has been much interest in recent years in the microbes and the oil fly that live in and digest the asphalt. They help break down this natural substance in the park and can be used to help clean up accidental oil spills in other areas.

Advances in technology have meant new ways to study the molecules preserved in fossils. At Rancho La Brea we can directly date a bone to find out its age as well as studying other molecules to learn about diets and migration.

The study of life on earth through investigation of fossil plants, animals, and protists.

The study of interactions among organisms, as well as between organisms and their environment, over geologic timescales

Due to the exceptional preservation by the asphalt many pathologies are preserved in the bones. There are over 8,000 specimens in our pathology collection.

For some lighter reading, a number of popular articles have been written that are inspired by Rancho La Brea.

Thousands of bones and teeth from small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish are found in the sediment we call matrix. Many more studies remain to be done on these ecosystems.

Science in action! There are still lots of new techniques and experiments being tested at Rancho La Brea.

This is the study of how an organism decayed and became a fossil.