Gavin Greig (ggreig) wrote,
Gavin Greig

La Brea

Having failed to visit the creationist dinosaur museum at Cabazon, it was time to come a bit more up to date in a couple of ways; by visiting a more reputable scientific establishment, to see more recently extinct beasties.

The La Brea Tar Pits* are one location that I particularly wanted to visit, having read about them since an early age. After a bit of a trek to get there (the driving instructions we had sent us in entirely the wrong direction at one point), I was excited to see a familiar looking prospect:

Columbian Mammoth sculpture at La Brea This is the picture you tend to see of La Brea: the sculpture of a Columbian Mammoth trapped in a pit, while her mate and child look on. The Page Museum (named after its primary benefactor) is the building in the background.

It turns out that this isn’t really properly representative of the pits at all. The small lake in which the mammoth is “sinking” only exists in its current form as a result of the tar being dug out for use in the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s a flooded quarry, if you like. Tar still seeps into it from beneath, as you can tell from the dark colour and the frequent slicks and eruptions of bubbles on the surface, but it’s far more watery than would have been the case in the past.

I’d always assumed that the sinking mammoth was, well, stuck, but msinvisfem spotted it first and thought she was seeing things; it's more anchored than fixed, and it floats about slightly in the breeze!

On entering the museum, there’s a fairly informative little film show, then it’s into the exhibits. I’m afraid you’ll have to go yourself to really do it justice, and I spent more timing reading about the exhibits than taking photos, but here are a couple:

Mastodon mother and calf; a camel is behind them. Sabre tooth family; sculpture.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I was right! There’s less to see than I might have thought, but that’s not a criticism – it’s easy to get an overblown impression of what we have in the fossil record sometimes, and it’s clear that even though this is a site of major importance, the real spectacular finds ain’t that common.

The museum fills three sides of a hollow square, and the big skeletons are up first, no doubt to ensure that they’ve got your attention. A sabre-toothed cat skeleton is intermittently overlaid with a (rather good) furry hologram of the same beast by the magic of selective lighting, and then there are less gimmicky skeletons of Harlan’s and Shasta ground sloths, an ancient bison, a mastodon mother and calf, “Yesterday’s Camel” and (of course) a Columbian mammoth.

So far so good; but as it turns out much of the interest is in less spectacular and less predictable exhibits. Most require reading, but the first is an interactive one that makes a key point simply and effectively.

You may remember I said the lake was not typical. The tar pull exhibit consists of a sealed tank with perhaps a couple of inches of tar in the bottom. Rods of two different diameters are sunk into the tar, and you’re invited to pull them out. The thin, deer leg-sized one lifts a little easier than the big mastodon sized one, but neither come clear even when pulled as far as the case permits – and it is an effort. The typical tar pit is closer to this depth than the stereotypical image we have of megafauna sunk to their haunches in it.

Other exhibits demonstrate the different kinds of wear the bones have been subjected to and what they tell us. Some are quite extreme. Surface wear – exposed to the elements – can leave the bone in papery layers like flaky pastry, while pit wear, as hard objects rub against each other in the tar pit, can leave bones covered in deep slots and holes.

Given the way we usually concentrate on the more spectacular finds, I was surprised by an extensive selection of complete bird skeletons – an important aspect of La Brea, as a lot of delicate fragile bird bones are preserved here. In fact, there’s all sorts of material preserved here that wouldn’t be found in more typical deposits, including vegetable matter and insects. A wall filled with about 400 dire wolf skulls emphasises the sheer quantity of material that’s come out of the pits over time.

If we’d gone during the week, I’m sure the fishbowl laboratory would also have been a highlight, as you can watch work on the finds in progress. Unfortunately we were there on a Saturday, so all the scientists were slacking off, but it was still interesting to peer through the glass and see a mammoth part-way through being cleaned up.

One last minor surprise was to spot an arty timeline mural, done as a ribbon – you know, the sort of thing where human beings appear just before midnight, if it’s done as a clock face instead – and to realise after gazing at it casually for a minute or two that it did actually manage to convey some sense of scale and the progression of time. It may not sound like much, but I don’t usually get much of a “feel” from those diagrams, and for some reason I did from this one. YMMV.

The gift shop yielded a couple of very nice T-shirts, and I got a bit annoyed by some rather excellent hand-painted pre-historic miniatures – only available individually, sight unseen, as collectibles in a sealed pack with candies. I didn’t get any on those terms, though if I had more control over what I was buying I’d jump at the chance. Not to a common scale, unfortunately, but they looked very nice and included some unusual choices.

Outside once more, it was time to see the real thing – the pit currently being excavated, and the relatively undisturbed, natural pits.

Excavation at Pit 91, La Brea A real tar pit, La BreaBubbling tar pit, La Brea …and apart from the way they smell like road-works, it’s suddenly much easier to see how an animal could find itself walking into one of these and not being able to fight its way back out.

Ground Sloth sculpture, La Brea Ground Sloth sculpture, La Brea

* A tautology, fact fans: La Brea is Spanish for “the tar”, or “the tar pits”.

Tags: california, natural history, photography, prehistory, science, travel

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