On August 3, 1769, Spanish missionaries got their first glimpse of “tar geysers” near the present-day Miracle Mile District of Los Angeles. Today, these “geysers” are known as the La Brea Tar Pits.
These pits are the result of the rare phenomenon of crude oil bubbling up to the surface of the earth. This oil mixes with sand to form a substance called tar sand. The pits have existed for tens of thousands of years, and have proved to be a treasure trove of information about the creatures that lived in the region during the end of the last Ice Age.
Prehistoric animals were lured to the shiny surface of the tar sand, thinking it was a pool of drinking water. Once they stepped into the tar, there was almost no chance of escape, and the fossilized remains of these animals were preserved perfectly until modern archaeologists discovered them.
Curiously, predators such as the saber-toothed cat and dire wolf outnumber prey animals such as mammoths and bison. Scientists believe that when a single prey animal would get stuck in the pit, whole packs or predators would attack, expecting an easy meal. This might explain why only about thirty mammoth skeletons have been found amongst the thousands of carnivores.
You can take on the role of an archaeologist in the Fossils interactive activity here. Test your knowledge of how fossils are formed and what they can tell us!
An all-natural time capsule in the heart of LA? Colossally cool.