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Scientists celebrate century of digging for fossils in LA’s sticky La Brea tar pits

Today, the George C. Page Museum celebrates 100 years of digging for fossils in Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits, The Associated Press reports.

According to the University of California at Berkeley, the La Brea tar pits hold one of the most diverse, best preserved, and most examined collections of Pleistocene vertebrates, including at least 59 species of mammal and more than 135 species of bird. The tar pits also include species of plants, mollusks, and insects.

“Earlier excavations really missed a great part of the story,” John Harris, chief curator at the George C. Page Museum, which supervises the fossil collection, told The AP. They “were only taking out bones they could see, but it’s the hidden bones that provide clues to the environment.”

UC-Berkeley adds that tar pits develop when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in our planet’s crust; the light fraction of the oil evaporates and the heavy tar remains. Over the years, the tar from the La Brea tar pits has been put to good use by both the local native Americans and Westerners. Tar from the tar pits was utilized as a glue and waterproof caulking for canoes, as well as for roofing construction in the town of  Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the current focus of Page Museum paleontologists has turned towards small fossilized organisms. The newspaper notes that microfossils have come to be considered extremely important to recreating the ecology and environment at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

“These tiny bits and pieces may not look exciting, but they have become the coolest things on this planet,” Luis Chiappe, vice president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum, told the Los Angeles Times. “The menageries of insects, lizards and snakes emerging from our excavations are telling stories you can’t get from a mammoth skeleton alone.”

UC-Berkeley points out that the bones sometimes discovered in the tar were originally believed to be those of unfortunate cattle. However, the first scientific excavation of the La Brea tar pits in 1901 revealed a true treasure trove of fossils.

According to the Smithsonian, the La Brea tar pits are unique in that most of the mammal fossils discovered are predators. Experts believe that each successive group of stuck animals attracted other carnivores, who ended up becoming trapped themselves. The carnivores attracted other predators and scavengers.

What do you think of the La Brea tar pits? Have you seen them in person? Start a conversation by sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.