La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits (or Rancho La Brea Tar Pits) are a famous cluster of tar pits located in Hancock Park in the urban heart of Los Angeles, California, United States. Asphalt (colloquially termed tar, which in Spanish is termed "brea", see below) has seeped up from the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years, forming hundreds of sticky pools that trapped animals and plants which happened to enter. Over time, the asphalt fossilized the remains. The result is an incredibly rich collection of fossils dating from the last ice age.

Fossils have been excavated from hundreds of pits in the park. Work started in the early 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s there was great public excitement over the dramatic mammal fossils recovered. By the 2000s, attention had shifted to microfossils, to fossilized insects and plants, and even to pollen grains. These fossils help define a picture of what is thought to be a cooler, moister climate present in the Los Angeles basin during the glacial age.

The George C. Page Museum in Hancock Park, part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, presents these discoveries. Of more than a hundred pits, one (Pit 91) continues to be regularly excavated for two months each summer, under the watchful eyes of tourists.cite web |url= |title=Page Museum - La Brea Tar Pits |accessdate=2006-12-15 |author=Page Museum |work=Page Museum web site |publisher=The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Foundation] The park's location in a major urban center, the history of dramatic discoveries, and excellent presentation in the Page Museum combine to make the La Brea Tar Pits a famous and accessible paleontological site.

Location and formation of the pits

The La Brea Tar Pits and Hancock Park are situated within urban Los Angeles, California, near the Miracle Mile district. In Hancock Park, asphalt (colloquially termed tar) seeps up from underground. The asphalt is derived from petroleum deposits which originate from underground locations throughout the Los Angeles Basin. The asphalt reaches the surface at several locations in the park, forming pools. Methane gas also seeps up, causing bubbles which makes the asphalt appear to boil. Asphalt and methane also appear under surrounding buildings, requiring special operations to remove, lest it weaken the buildings' foundations. It was recently discovered that the bubbles are caused by hardy forms of bacteria embedded in the natural asphalt that are eating away at the petroleum and releasing methane; of the bacteria sampled so far, about 200 to 300 are previously unknown species.Jia-Rui Chong, [,1,1214388,full.story?coll=la-default-underdog Researchers learn why tar pits are bubbly] , "Los Angeles Times", May 14, 2007.] This seepage has been happening for tens of thousands of years. From time to time, the asphalt would form a pool deep enough to trap animals, and the surface would be covered with layers of water, dust, and leaves. Animals would wander in, become trapped and eventually die. Predators would also enter to eat the trapped animals, and themselves become stuck.

As the bones of the dead animals sink into the asphalt, it fossilizes them, turning them a dark brown or black color. Lighter fractions of petroleum evaporate from the asphalt, leaving a more solid substance which holds the bones. Apart from the dramatic fossils of large mammals, the asphalt also preserves very small "microfossils", wood and plant remnants, and even pollen grains.

Radiometric dating of preserved wood and bones has given an age of 38,000 years for the oldest known material from the La Brea seeps, and they are still ensnaring organisms today.

La Brea animals and plants


The park is known for producing myriad mammal fossils dating from the last ice age. While mammal fossils occupy significant interest, other fossils, including fossilized insects and plants, and even pollen grains, are also valued. These fossils help define a picture of what is thought to be a cooler, moister climate present in the Los Angeles basin during the glacial age. Among these fossils are microfossils. Microfossils are retrieved from a matrix of asphalt and sandy clay by washing with a solvent to remove the petroleum, then picking through the remains under a high-powered lens.

La Brea may be the only excavation sites in the world where the predators found outnumber prey. The reason for this is unknown but one credited theory is that a large prey animal (say, a mastodon) would die naturally or accidentally become entrapped in a tar pit, attracting numerous predators across long distances. This so-called predator trap would kill many animals that found themselves stuck along with their prey. Another theory, specific to the Dire Wolf, suggests that both prey and predators may have been trapped accidentally during the hunt. Since wolves hunt in packs, each prey animal could take several wolves with it.


Below is a partial list of extinct and extant animals with their scientific names included on the right side. This is a selection from the [ complete catalogue] .


* †Imperial Mammoth ("Mammuthus imperator")
* †Columbian Mammoth ("Mammuthus columbi")
* †American Mastodon ("Mammut americanum")
* †Harlan's Ground Sloth ("Paramylodon harlani")
* †Jefferson’s Ground Sloth ("Megalonyx jeffersoni")
* †Shasta Ground Sloth ("Nothrotheriops shastensis")
* †Ancient Bison ("Bison antiquus") ( [] )
* †American Camel ("Camelops hesterus")
* †Stilt-legged Llama ("Hemiauchenia macrophala")
* †Western Horse ("Equus "occidentalis")
* †Mexican Horse ("Equus conversidens")
* †Peccary ("Platygonus compressus")
* Pronghorn ("Antilocapra americana")
* †Tar-pit pronghorn ("Capromeryx minor")
* †California Tapir ("Tapirus californicus")
* Elk (Wapiti) ("Cervus canadensis")
* Deer ("Odocoileus sp.")


* †Short-faced bear ("Arctodus simus")
* Brown bear ("Ursus arctos")
* Black bear ("Ursus americanus")
* †American Lion ("Panthera leo atrox")
* †Scimitar Cat ("Homotherium serum")
* †Sabre-Toothed Cat ("Smilodon fatalis")
* Jaguar ("Panthera onca augusta")
* †American cheetah ("Miracinonyx inexpectatus")
* Cougar ("Puma concolor")
* †Dire Wolf ("Canis dirus")
* Gray Wolf ("Canis lupus")
* Coyote ("Canis latrans")
* Bobcat ("Lynx rufus")
* Weasel
* Raccoon
* Skunk
* Human


A partial list of extinct and extant birds found as fossils at La Brea.
* California Condor
* Eagle
* Falcon
* †Teratorns
* Turkey
* Vulture

Reptiles, amphibians, and fish

* Arroyo Chub
* Garter Snake
* Gopher Snake
* Kingsnake
* Pond Turtle
* Rainbow Trout
* Rattlesnake
* Salamander
* Three-spined stickleback
* Tree Frog
* Toad


* Fly
* Dung beetle
* Grasshopper
* Pill Bug
* Scorpion
* Termite
* Water Flea


* California Juniper
* Coast Live Oak
* Poison Oak
* Ragweed
* Raspberry
* Red Cedar
* Redwood tree
* Sagebrush
* California Sycamore
* Thistle
* Walnut tree

Further information

"Brea" is Spanish for "tar", making "The La Brea Tar Pits" a redundant expression meaning "The The Tar Tar Pits" (an example of pleonasm). The "tar" pits were used as a source of asphalt (for use as low-grade fuel and for waterproofing and insulation) by early settlers of the Los Angeles area. Early settlers mistook the bones in the pits for the remains of unlucky pronghorns or local cattle that had become mired.

Rancho La Brea is the most famous, but there are two other asphalt pits with fossils in southern California: in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County and McKittrick, in Kern County. There are other fossil-bearing asphalt deposits in Texas, Peru, Trinidad, Iran, Russia and Poland.

For other rich deposits, fossilized where they occurred, see Lagerstätten.

La Brea in fiction

* In the 1997 pseudo-scientific fantasy film "Volcano", a volcano grows out of the largest pool of tar (after the mammoth in the diorama sinks into it), spewing a river of hot lava down Wilshire Boulevard.
* The pits were also featured in the final scene of the movie "Miracle Mile", as well as several other movies representative of Los Angeles.
* In Steven Spielberg's 1979 film "1941", Captain Wild Bill Kelso, played by John Belushi, shoots down a plane that he mistook for a Japanese plane into the La Brea Tar Pits.
* In "Last Action Hero", the character "Jack Slater" (Arnold Schwarzenegger) falls into the tar pits but quickly swims out and easily wipes himself clean, which the film's protagonist points out as an action-film cliché. An incorrect dinosaur model is shown in the pit, as a mocking reference to the same year's "Jurassic Park".
* The tar pits are also featured in a key scene in "Alan Smithee's" "".
* The episode "That's Lobstertainment!" of "Futurama" depicts an animated version of the tar pits. Fry notices a caveman skeleton with club and wearing an animal skin, causing him to exclaim, "I don't believe it, Sylvester Stallone!"
* In "The Two Jakes" a scene takes place at the La Brea Tar Pits.
* Hidden underneath the museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is the secret base of the heroes of Brian K. Vaughan's comic book "Runaways".
* In "My Girl 2", a scene occurs in which Nick pretends to throw Vada's very special ring into the tar pits.
* In "The Simpsons" episode "Bart Gets an Elephant", they visit a tar pit attraction modeled on the La Brea Tar Pits.
* In the novel "Mammoth" by John Varley, a large part of the plot occurs in and around La Brea in the past and present.
* In the novel "City Of Bones" by Michael Connelly The tar pits are mentioned in connection with Los Angeles oldest known murder victim who was murdered 9000 years ago.
* In the 1948 Warner Brothers cartoon "My Bunny Lies Over the Sea," Bugs Bunny is tunneling to Los Angeles intending to visit the La Brea Tar Pits and accidentally winds up in Scotland. [] That sets up this heavily-brogued line by the kilted Scotsman that Bugs meets: "Therrr'es no La Brrrea Tarrr Pits in Scotland!"
* In an episode of , Kong and his human friends go to Los Angeles where they fight the series villain Ramone De La Porta in front of the La Brea Tar Pits. The villains use the (non-existent) dinosaur bones in the pits to create monsters which Kong fights.
* In the ABC sitcom "Dinosaurs", which takes place in prehistoric times, there is a reference to the pits in Bob LaBrea, an ancient dinosaur chief, for which the main characters' school, LaBrea High School, is named, despite the fact that no dinosaur bones have been found in the Tar Pits.
* The Mighty Max series features an episode entitled Tar Wars which is centered around the tar pits.
* The Flintstones regularly make reference to the La Brea Tar Pits though no dinosaur or hominid bones (beyond those of a woman) have been found.
* In the 1990 film "Bad Influence", a scene occurs in which James Spader's & Christian Clemenson's characters attempt to cover up a murder committed by Rob Lowe's character by placing a deceased woman in the La Brea Tar Pits. Her body is pulled from the pit the following day with emergency rescue personnel hovering over the actual pit.
* The Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode PDA contains a parody of the La Brea Tar Pits which puts its location as Trenton, New Jersey.
* The main protagonist of Robert Masello's horror novel, "The Bestiary" works on a dig at the La Brea Tar Pits. Though not integral to the story, the discovery of the 9000-year old fossilized remains of a couple forms one of the subplots of the book.
* The site is frequently mentioned in the novelty song Pico and Sepulveda.
* In the 1990s PBS game show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" Top Grunge stole the La Brea Tar Pits.
* In the Teen novel "POSEUR", 2008, Janie and Evan discuss the tar pits, mentioning that, on a field trip when they were younger, they were told by a very strange tour guide that the mammoth in the diorama was alive, just staying very still so that he would not sink deeper into the tar.
* In Moonlight (TV series), setting LA, Episode 13, Fated to Pretend, Josef mentioned that the only person he had killed that week was in the LA Tar Pits.
* In the 2007 movie The Hammer, the main character Jerry Ferro (Adam Corolla) goes on a date to the tar pits and Page Museum with Lindsay Pratt, played by Heather Juergensen who actually lives near the park in real life.

See also

* List of fossil sites "(with link directory)"


External links

* [ Page Museum - La Brea Tar Pits]
* [ UCMP Berkeley website describes the geology and paleontology of the asphalt seeps.]
* [ Setting the La Brea site in context.]
* [ La Brea Tar Pits] Visitor Guide
* [ "My Bunny Lies Over The Sea", a Bugs Bunny cartoon that mentions the La Brea Tar Pits]

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