Last year, we started inviting readers They sent us their burning questions around Los Angeles and California.
Every few weeks, we put the questions to a vote, asking readers to decide which question they’d like answered in story form.
This question, asked by Ricky Fulton, was included in one of our most recent polls: What are La Brea Tar Pits? Is it a bunch of flying tar with dinosaur bones sticking out?
You can vote in our next reader question poll here. Follow here previous stories written as part of this project.
There’s more to La Brea Tar Pits than meets the eye – and nose -.
For those who don’t know, the La Brea Tar Pits is an internationally recognized geological heritage site, located in the center of Los Angeles. The site is famous for its many fossil quarries (referred to as “pits”), where animals, plants, and insects have been bogged down in and preserved in the asphalt for the past 50,000 years.
For scientists, they are a unique and invaluable treasure trove of information that allows us to better understand what ancient life was like in present-day Los Angeles.
“The kind of science you can do at La Brea Tar Pits are things you can’t really do at any other fossil site in the world, just because we have so many fossils, and they’re so well preserved,” said Emily Lindsay, co-curator and director of the excavation site.
More than 3.5 million fossils have been discovered inside the smelly goo – a curiosity for locals, tourists and schoolchildren on field trips.
To answer Fulton’s question right off the bat, here’s one thing they didn’t dig up: dinosaurs.
That’s right — this is an Ice Age fossil site, and experts haven’t discovered any remains of it T. rexesTriceratops or other non-avian dinosaurs.
While the La Brea Tar Pits lack dinosaur fossils, they are chock-full of fossils from legendary Ice Age animals. The most common large mammal? Dire wolves (shout out to all “Game of Thrones.”” fans) and toothy cats.
Despite the scientists’ groundbreaking discoveries, mysteries remain in the oozing pits.
Sometimes, Lindsey said, the things scientists see no Finding them in the tar pits fascinates as much as the bones and other things you find.
Lindsey described the mysteries posed by the tar pits that remain to be solved.
Here are three of the most impressive:
Why are the remains of some native species – such as mountain lions – largely missing from the tar pits?
Strange thing: Scientists have discovered relatively few mountain lion remains in the tar pits.
Hollywood celebrity status P-22 As an aside, it may seem strange to worry about the lack of some mountain lion fossils when tar pits have revealed the remains of extinct mammoths, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths.
Yet, oddly enough, mountain lions—which were present in the Los Angeles area during the Ice Age—make up a small percentage of scientists’ finds in the tar pits. There are remains of tar pits from at least seven different mountain lions, while their saber-toothed cats number between 2,500 and 3,000.
And it’s not just mountain lions lost from the tar pits.
“We have very few mountain lions, very few deer…and only one raccoon,” she said. Aside from wolves, scientists have found “very few of these [large mammal] “Ice Age Survivors,” which is interesting.
Why might mountain lions be missing from the tar pits?
The answer could help scientists paint a more detailed picture of what life was like in prehistoric Los Angeles.
Lindsey and her colleagues have some ideas. Among other possible explanations, it’s possible that mountain lions – true to their name – have always preferred to be found in the highlands, rather than the flat areas of present-day Los Angeles near the tar pits.
Or perhaps it was because mountain lions were afraid of hunting in the same areas as saber-toothed cats. A mountain lion is like a domestic cat next to a saber-toothed cat – [it’s possible] They wanted to stay away and not be around all these big scary things.”
Where is the evidence of human life?
Mountain lions, raccoons, and deer aren’t the only mammals missing from the tar pits. There is also a distinct lack of human remains.
“Humans were hereBut why can’t we find any evidence of it in the La Brea Tar Pits? Lindsey asked. “We have one human skeleton, and then we have some artifacts that are probably all from the Holocene (our current geological era), but we have no evidence of humans interbreeding with or interacting with megafauna” through hunting.
This is puzzling, because “many — perhaps most — scientists believe that the main cause of the megafauna extinction was human activity,” Lindsey explains.
Similar to mountain lions, Lindsey notes that the absence of ancient humans could indicate their reticence to hunt nearby saber-toothed cats and other dangerous animals.
“Maybe the culture that was here had adapted on the coast and they didn’t need to brave, say, a pack of dire wolves to go and hunt a horse or a camel. They could stay close to the shore and pick the shellfish,” she said.
Why did large mammals begin to disappear – and what does this tell us about our future?
Once upon a time, giant mammals roamed the vast expanses of the Earth.
“There were giant wombats in Australia, there were giant lemurs in Madagascar, and there were giant sloths and armadillos in South America,” Lindsey said.
So, Lindsey asks, why don’t we have cats, saber-toothed mammoths, and giant ground sloths roaming Wilshire Boulevard today?
A radical change has occurred. “At the end of the Ice Age, something happened, wiping out the upper end of the body size distribution everywhere but Africa,” she said. “This is the largest extinction event since the dinosaur extinction event 66 million years ago.”
Even cooler, she said, the loss of giant mammals is becoming recognized as “the first pulse in the biodiversity crisis we’re going through today.”
Why did this extinction happen? Most scientists believe that humans must have had a very important role in this extinction. But the other thing that was happening is that we’re out of the ice age — the last major episode of global warming,” she said.
“Understanding the kind of interaction between climate change and human activities, how that affects ecosystems and how these two processes might intersect to cause extinctions is very important.”
The La Brea Tar Pits were laid out to help solve the mystery of exactly why giant mammals died out, given the size and range of their findings, which can be radiocarbon dated and are consistent with known shifts that occurred simultaneously with humans and climate.
On the other side of the coin, 90% of the species found in the tar pits are not extinct. “We have tons of rabbits, rodents, lizards, insects and songbirds on our record that still live in the Los Angeles area today,” Lindsey said via email.
She said, “We have a proven track record of survival and resilience,” which begs some questions. “What made mountain lions so successful? What made coyotes so successful? What made oak trees so successful?”
as such Climate crisis Getting worse today, the answers to these mysteries can chart a course for the future.
“The next several decades to several centuries are going to be really extreme global changes,” said Lindsay. “How can we use this information to help life succeed moving forward?”
This existential question should give you something to think about the next time you pass the iconic (and heart-wrenching) mammoth statues on Wilshire Street.
This story was written directly in response to a reader’s question about La Brea Tar Pits. Do you have a question about life in Los Angeles or California? Ask us!
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.