La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

I took an extended Californian holiday this summer to visit family, and I decided to take the opportunity to visit as many museums I could as well! First on my list: perhaps the single most famous fossil locality in the world, The La Brea Tar Pits! Located smack dab in the heart of Los Angeles, this site sits over an oil deposit which leaks a sticky, tar-like substance to the surface (technically referred to as an “asphaltum seep”) which has trapped untold millions of animals since the Pleistocene Epoch. This gives us one of the most detailed representations of Ice Age environments on the planet.

A giant sloth and the sinking mammoth at the La Brea Tar Pits exterior park grounds. Incidentally, as with the Mayborn Museum and the associated Waco Mammoth Site, the mammoths found here belong to the Columbian Mammoth species, rather than the more famous Wooly Mammoth.

The actual “tar pits” are scattered across a park that is free to visit. Statues of various Ice Age beasts dot the landscape for effect, the most iconic of which depict a mammoth trapped in the asphaltum as a pair of other mammoths watch helplessly from the shore. While the most defined pits are enclosed by fences for guest safety, small patches that can ruin your shoes occasionally seep up through the grass which are marked by safety cones when they are found.

Visitors can also view excavation sites around the complex, the most famous of which is Pit 91, one of the longest running individual excavation s at the site. When active, paleontologists would scoop out the asphaltum covering the bones, and remove entire blocks of tangled skeletons that had been jumbled together by struggling animals. Fans of the old Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” may remember an episode in which Mike Rowe helped out in this particular excavation pit. The viewing area for Pit 91 was unfortunately blocked off due to Covid restrictions on the visit, but having seen it before I can tell you it’s an impressive sight when it is available.

Excavations in Pit 91 have actually largely been on hold for the past decade anyway, due to another interesting ongoing project. When the L.A. art museum next door expanded its exhibit space a while back, a new fossil assemblage was discovered on the proposed site. Rather than wait for scientists to excavate it all, they look the unique approach of simply scooping up massive blocks of earth with the fossils inside, and moving them onto the tar pit museum grounds in giant wooden boxes. Since then, researchers have focused their attention on digging through these boxes, not unlike an adult version of those fossil sand boxes some museums have for kids to play with. The largest individual Columbian Mammoth ever found to date actually came from one of these boxes, who researchers have christened “Zed”.

The pits aren’t the only thing to see here, however, as most of the excavated fossils are brought inside to the associated Page Museum. Shaped in a loop around a central atrium, it comes jam packed with various exhibits and interactive activities to engage visitors. Mounted skeletons of creatures found in the pits of course form the focal point of the experience, with mammoths, mastodons, sabre tooth cats, dire wolves, giant sloths, and more all on view. One especially fascinating display consists of nothing but a wall of several hundred dire wolf skulls, which itself represents only a fraction of the total number recovered from the site.

The primary fossil experience doesn’t stop at these skeletal displays, however. Viewers also get to view the fossil prep lab itself, affectionately known as “The Fishbowl” by staff for reasons I’m sure my readers can guess. Zed’s massive skull naturally draws the eye, sitting in the middle of the lab, while researchers clean it and countless other fossils that they have collected. Looking to the right of the lab, guests can even look through a window into the collections, where one can see the rows upon rows of storage cabinets

The museum has a variety of activities to engage visitors, including a station that demonstrates the danger of the tar pits by challenging guests to attempt to pull a rod up from a vat of asphaltum. My boys ended up enjoying the mammoth fighting activity most of all, in which they took control of two mobile mammoth heads to re-enact how these prehistoric pachyderms might have used their tusks to battle for dominance.

You could say the mammoth battle station was a real HIT.

Any natural history museum worth its salt makes use of at least some basic paleoart in order to help visitors interpret the fossils on display, and the Page Museum really does not skimp out. Several awe-inspiring, life-sized sculptures by Beth Zaiken and the other artists of Blue Rhino Studios grace this museum, including both a Columbian and a Dwarf Channel Island Mammoth, a sabertooth, a shockingly tall Short-Faced Bear, and a series of busts portraying the evolution of the elephant family (When the Whales Walked is a good children’s book that also portrays this series).

From left to right: the bottom-tusked Deinotherium, the shovel-tusked Amebelodon, the quad-tusked Gomphotherium, one of the earliest truly elephant-like probiscideans Phiomia, and the not-yet-elephant-like Moeritherium.

Speaking of paleoart, I found an original painting by Charles Knight! His work ranks among some of the most iconic paleoart in history, and still inspires many to this day. This particular painting of course portrays a scene of the La Brea Tar Pits sometime during the Ice Age. According to Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time, he wanted to have a larger hand in the design of the museum, but he was getting towards the end of his career at that point, and it didn’t end up working out. I also saw a commonly reproduced mural of the geologic timeline there, but I can’t seem to recall the artist’s name. Let me know in the comments if you happen to recognize it!

The kids and I had a great time at the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum. As an iconic site of huge paleontological significance, it is an absolute must-see for any fan of prehistoric life. Conveniently located (except for the atrocious Los Angeles traffic), it should make for a relatively easy visit whether you live in the area or simply want to make it a stop on a Southern California vacation. I’m sure you will enjoy it as much as we did! For more on prehistoric mammals, check out my reviews of Once Upon A Mastodon and Mammals! Explorer.

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