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Preserving the unique history of the La Brea Tar Pits

Black gooey methane bubbles pop on the surface of the Lake Pit outside the La Brea Museum in Los Angeles. It’s the only warning of the sticky, heavy asphalt on the bottom of the pit. The asphalt seeps have been there for thousands of years, stemming from a nearby underground large petroleum reservoir called Salt Lake Oil Field.

Thousands of years ago, the liquid asphalt trapped unsuspecting mammoths, horses, giant ground sloths, camels and bison that roamed the area, thirsty for a drink. Only 1.5 inches of the asphalt was required to trap a creature as massive as a mammoth or bison.

Predatory carnivores saw the stuck animals as the perfect way to get a meal. Dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and lions would creep up on their trapped prey but they too would become stuck in the liquid asphalt.

It was a slow death by starvation. They decayed on the surface and became buried by the asphalt and sediment over time.

A complete ecosystem preserved

But the unique nature of the La Brea Tar Pits is that they preserved an entire ecosystem between 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, containing massive mammoth tusks and giant sloth bones alongside acorns and microscopic plant and insect fossils. More than 100 species of birds and a number of other species were first described after being found at La Brea.

“It’s one of the most important paleontological sites in the world that records an entire ecosystem going through time,” said Emily Lindsey, assistant curator. “We can see how it changed in response to major climatic events over the last 50,000 years. And we’ve been able to look how different species who went extinct, like large predators, as well as the few who didn’t go extinct, such as coyotes and mountain lions.”

Lindsey said there are about a dozen known fossilized tar pits in the world: the western part of the Americas, the Caribbean, Trinidad, Cuba, Venezuela, southern Ecuador and northern Peru, and some less well studied in Asia. But only a few of them formed in the way that La Brea did, capturing the rich, diverse nature of the landscape like a time capsule.

The site has been excavated since 1906 and more than 3.5 million specimens have been recovered, representing hundreds of species and many that are extinct today. Excavations remain ongoing.

Specimens fill the on-site museum, including the three most common animals found in the pits: dire wolves, saber-toothed cats and coyotes.

The asphalt seeps preserve fossils so well that scientists can extract molecular data and determine the age of the specimens as well as when they died. But studying the specimens in the museum’s lab requires damaging part of the bone or plant materials to obtain samples.

Bones reveal so much

The bones tell a story. A timber wolf that adapted to survive after a traumatic amputation. A mammoth that likely died fighting another male during the competitive mating season. Animals and insects that were sick or had arthritis or survived as others went extinct around them when the climate changed.

In order to preserve the size and shape of each bone, plaster casts and photos captured the full physical details. But given that new fossils can essentially be discovered on site every day, the fossils were stacking up in boxes and on shelves. In 2006, construction work for a new parking garage uncovered 16 new fossil deposits, including a nearly complete skeleton of an adult mammoth nicknamed Zed that had 10-foot-long tusks. Work is continuing on the fossils found in new deposits, but the museum estimates it will double their amount of specimens when completed.

About two and a half years ago, researchers at La Brea began using 3D scanning technology. It was fast, efficient, helped them save space and even provided a chance for fossils to be shared easily with researchers around the world. Researchers can learn information just by comparing specific points on bones and comparing how they change among specimens, Howard said. La Brea’s wealth of fossils from the same type of animal allows for that kind of study.

Imaging specialist Carrie Howard has scanned about 1,100 specimens since she began using the Artec Space Spider. The handheld scanner works best on the challenging curves of the animal bones recovered from the pits.

Howard has scanned items ranging in size from squirrel and rabbit bones to a bison’s rib, as well as jaw and long bones from dire wolves, horses, big cats, camels and coyotes.

The scans provide enough resolution that 3D bones can be printed from them.

Why some species survived and others didn’t

Researchers usually select specific fossils, which are retrieved by a collections manager, and then given to Howard for scanning. She slowly spins the fossil on a turntable, standing at a window so museum-goers can watch her work. Nearby, they can also watch fossils being cleaned and studied.

A unique hallmark of the La Brea bones is a shiny, dark brown tone due the liquid asphalt. The scanner can read complex surfaces easier, so Howard angles the scanner this way and that while turning the bone to capture every nuance. She’s scanned up to 20 in a day.

A recent study revealed that coyotes and mountain lions adapted their diets and used their smaller size to advantage, surviving as other, larger predators like dire wolves and saber-toothed cats went extinct. Understanding adaptation requires large data sets, access and funding. But digital files of these fossils can overcome those challenges, Lindsey said.

The staff at La Brea can also include information about the orientation of the fossil and where it was found in a deposit so researchers can have specific visuals for their studies.

The 3D files provide another option for museums to diversify the way they present information, as well.

“We’re looking at using these sorts of digital assets in augmented reality,” Lindsey said. “The ways that museums communicate information is evolving rapidly. We can create a situation where people can interact with and create 3D scans of fossils, understand how physical objects can be used by scientists, and understand more about the past.”

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