Two Stops, One Ice Age

Many thousands of years ago, a six-year-old mammoth had a bad day.

family kids interacting mammoths and mastodons exhibit la brea tar pits

Many thousands of years ago, a six-year-old mammoth had a bad day. Whether it had an incident at a watering hole or a stumble while traversing a small stream, somehow the mammoth most certainly perished near what will soon be a Metro station at Wilshire and La Brea Boulevards.

While the Metro Purple Line Extension will eventually connect downtown L.A. and Westwood, it already extends all the way back to the Ice Age. Construction crews found this little mammoth, nicknamed Hayden, in November 2016 while digging 15 feet beneath the city streets. And, Hayden wasn’t alone. Within just a few feet, buried in the same dusty sediment were a mastodon tooth and the tusk of an adult mammoth. This mysterious fossil party is a reminder that our city has a rich prehistoric past full of animals that would look quite out of place riding today’s public transportation.

Just half a mile away from the rumbling construction site where Hayden was found, gooey asphalt from deep underground slowly seeps to the surface around the La Brea Tar Pits, just as it has for at least the past 50,000 years. During their bubbling tenure, the tar pits have claimed the lives of untold numbers of organisms, from tiny insects to Ice Age behemoths such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths. It’s intriguing to think Hayden could have walked past a fellow mammoth stuck in the Tar Pits mere moments before dying down the road.

In a bit of Ice Age poetry, Hayden will be briefly reunited with its fellow Ice Age compatriots who succumbed to the sticky grip of the asphalt. Through Labor Day, visitors can see Hayden at the Fossil Lab of the museum at La Brea Tar Pits. Next to the asphaltic fossils (those excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits) the skull has a ghostly pallor. Fossils from the Tar Pits are dyed a caramel color by the asphalt, but Hayden is a “normal” fossil, preserved by layers of loose sandy sediment, so its bones are, well, bone colored.

During Hayden’s brief stay in the Fossil Lab, experts will remove portions of the thick plaster jacket used to safely transport the fossil from the construction site. Once free from this protective coating, conservators can clean Hayden up by dusting away the chalky sediment and fixing any broken bones.

Normally a fossil recovered during construction would be prepared in a nondescript warehouse far from public view, but this Ice Age adolescent will be cleaned and repaired for all to see thanks to a special collaboration between the La Brea Tar Pits and Cogstone, the mitigation company working with Metro on the Purple Line Extension.

This fossil and others found recently during Metro construction won’t be added to the vast collections at the La Brea Tar Pits (only fossils found in asphalt deposits in the area have that honor), but they do nonetheless add to the greater picture of the Ice Age here in L.A. Even after decades of research and the discovery of millions of fossils, we still have big questions about this time period and its remarkable living things: Why did so many of these animals go extinct? How did some survive to present day? What was the climate of L.A. like thousands of years ago? How quickly did it change? And what can all of this teach us about future climate changes?

If (or rather, when) nearby construction yields new fossils in asphalt deposits, those will be added to the La Brea Tar Pits collection, just like they were with Project 23. And this Summer, outside the La Brea Tar Pits, you can see what’s going on with a haul from a previous construction project—the one at the LACMA parking lot 11 years ago. So many fossils were found trapped in asphalt seeps that a mitigation company boxed entire tar pits up like so many gargantuan takeout containers and moved them to a giant outdoor fossil prep laboratory. This Summer the Tar Pits team has opened up the newest crate—Box 13.

“It’s a classic tar pits seep,” says Dr. Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator at the La Brea Tar Pits. “It has thousands of bones jumbled together.” “You can see horse, condor, saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, and coyote,” says the La Brea Tar Pits Collections Manager, Aisling Farrell. “There’s a skull or two exposed and a beak as well.”

While La Brea Tar Pits team members work through this newly opened box of Project 23, they will remove the large bones and set aside the rest of the fossil matrix, the mix of dirt and debris in between the bones. After the asphalt is removed, local middle school students will help sort through this material looking for microfossils such as rodent teeth, lizard vertebra, bird bones, insect wings, plant pieces, and snail shells. These smaller fossils help researchers see the bigger picture of the Ice Age ecosystem — how all these living things interacted and connected with each other and the surrounding environment.

Visitors can see researchers chipping away at the contents of Box 13 in a newly cleared walkway to the fence surrounding Project 23. There aren’t many places where so much science happens in plain view—or outside for that matter—but the La Brea Tar Pits are singular in their richness, their outreach, and their accessibility. In more ways than one, the La Brea Tar Pits really stick with you.

Observation Pit
The museum’s iconic Observation Pit is now open to all guests during museum hours, where visitors can see bones of Ice Age creatures jumbled together in “fossil gumbo.”

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.

Project 23
The latest crate in this above-ground excavation is now open. Watch as staff and volunteers unpack fossils from Box 13 in a newly cleared walkway up to the fence.