August 3 – In the stick of things

Today’s factismal: “La brea” means “the tar”, so the La Brea Tar Pits is “the the tar tar pits”.

Back on August 3, 1769, a group of Spanish missionaries were riding through what would become downtown Los Angeles when they noticed an awful smell. After eliminating the donkeys at the cause, the followed their noses to what would become known as the La Brea Tar Pits. A swamp of water, tar, and bitumen (hardened tar), the La Brea tar pits covered nearly two square miles with the tar seeping up through a number of small pits scattered throughout the area. The locals soon set up a tar mining operation and used the resulting hydrocarbons for everything from caulking to fuel to medicine (yuck!). As they dug deeper into the pits, they soon discovered bones scattered throughout the tar but thought that the bones belonged to cattle and other ranch animals that had gotten lost.

A mother mastodon and her child look on helplessly as daddy sinks into the tar pit (My camera)

A mother mastodon and her child look on helplessly as daddy sinks into the tar pit
(My camera)

What daddy looks like without his gooshy bits (My camera)

What daddy looks like without his gooshy bits
(My camera)

It wasn’t until 1901 that the bones were recognized as fossils. Since then, the fossilized remains of more than 650 different species of animal have been found in the 100 or so tar pits in the area. More than a million different specimens have been excavated, ranging in size from the huge American mastodon to the tiny dragonfly. Even better, you can watch as paleontologists excavate bones in the tar pits or even help with the dig!

One of the on-going excavations (My camera)

One of the on-going excavations
(My camera)

A few of the specimens on display (My camera)

A few of the specimens on display
(My camera)

Of course, if that is too far for you to travel, you can always get the fossil to come to you. The Mastodon Matrix Project is looking for people to pick through the detritus covering a mammoth skeleton so that we can learn more about the environment the mammoth lived in. To participate, head on over to:
http://www.museumoftheearth.org/research.php?page=Mastodon_Research/Mast_Matrix

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