Dire Wolves and Saber Cats! (La Brea Tar Pits)

La Brea, mammoth

Ever since I was old enough to understand what they were, I’ve been fascinated by prehistoric animals. When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a piano-playing-astronaut who was a paleontologist when I wasn’t in outer space. Seriously. (And what happened with that? You’d think I’d have gone all sciencey, but instead I went all artsy. Weird.) Anyway, I had this book with full color illustrations of extinct animals, and half of it was dinosaurs and half of it was ice age mammals and I probably destroyed the book, if my mother doesn’t have it stashed somewhere. (Hey mom, is it stashed somewhere?)

The point of all of this is that the dinosaurs and giant ground sloths and such have always been my FAVORITE parts of natural history museums, and there’s a reason that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is the one I’ve visited three times (and am on their mailing list even though I haven’t lived on that side of the continent in years). So when the chance came to drive up to La Brea (and see the tar pits) one afternoon, I jumped at it.

La Brea, bubbling lake

It only takes about two hours to get to the tar pits from our house, and we enjoyed the drive to Los Angeles. We got to the Page Museum right around lunch time, so we walked to a NY pizza place and had a really good lunch before heading back to tour the museum. They have a pond out front with tar leaking into it that bubbles from the methane-producing organisms on the bottom of it, but they also have several pits currently being excavated.

La Brea, bones in excavation

I didn’t know that the tar is actually a natural asphalt, and hardens when it’s cool outside, so when the water is removed and it’s dry, they’re basically chipping away at something solid and not at gooey tar. Pretty interesting. It’s also why they don’t tend to find nocturnal animals in the pits: at night, the ground was hard.

La Brea, J with dire wolf skulls

There is a huge collection of fossils on exhibit, as you can see from the number of dire wolf skulls in this photo, and they have so many saber cats that they can show a row of skulls at different stages of teething. Really. There are also camels and ancient bison and all sorts of things. But my favorite?

The mammoth.

La Brea, Jo with Mammoth

This was the first time I can remember ever seeing a real mammoth skeleton.

La Brea, giant jaguar

All of the fossils in the museum are real, which is sort of mind boggling. They even have some North American lion fossils, which they now think was actually a giant jaguar and not a lion like the ones in Africa. Pretty cool (and terrifying) to think of a jaguar that’s almost twice the size of a saber toothed cat!

We got to see some current excavation sites, and see volunteers sifting through the tiny fossils found in the tar matrix (insects and seeds and other tiny things get preserved, too) and the project they’re working on that involves the most complete mammoth skeleton they’ve ever found. Very exciting stuff.

So kindergarten-me was very excited. And I’d totally volunteer there… except for the two hour drive! (Check out more photos here!)

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