La Brea Tar Pits, California
Giant Beasts, Preserved Forever
In a city that celebrates glitz and glamour, one of the most popular destinations is a malodorous pool of goo. The La Brea Tar Pits, in a 23-acre park in the heart of Los Angeles and just minutes from Beverly Hills, is the only active urban paleontological excavation site in the United States. Over the past century paleontologists have found more than three million specimens—including saber-toothed cats, giant jaguars, mammoths and dire wolves. La Brea is “one of the richest ice age fossil sites in the world,” says John Harris, chief curator at the onsite George C. Page Museum.
La Brea is essentially an oil field. Some 40,000 years ago, low-grade crude oil, known to geologists as asphalt, began seeping to the surface, forming a black, tarlike ooze that ensnared unsuspecting animals. Unlike a typical ecosystem, in which herbivores outnumber carnivores, roughly 90 percent of the mammal fossils found are predators. Scientists speculate that each successive group of trapped animals attracted other carnivores, but ended up getting stuck themselves. The carnivores, in turn, lured other predators and scavengers.