What are the La Brea Tar Pits?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Cougars are one of the creatures that have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits that still exist.
Cougars are one of the creatures that have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits that still exist.

The La Brea Tar Pits are a lagerstätte (German: place of storage, resting place), or extremely rich fossil bed, located in what is now downtown Los Angeles, California. La Brea means "the tar" in Spanish, so the "tar pits" in the name is actual somewhat redundant.

Many thousands of fossils have been extracted from the La Brea Tar Pits, all dating from the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. Animals and plants started getting trapped in the pits about 38,000 years ago, and they had been receiving a steady supply of new victims until they were turned into a tourist destination less than a century ago.

Los Angeles is the site of the La Brea Tar Pits.
Los Angeles is the site of the La Brea Tar Pits.

The tar comes from an underground petroleum deposit leaking to the surface. The surface becomes covered in leaves and dust, causing animals to occasionally wander into it without knowing, sometimes becoming trapped. Predators probably gathered around the pits in ancient times, looking for a free meal, and got stuck themselves. Although unpleasant for the victims, this method of fossilization is among the best, preserving microscopic pollen grains as well as animals as large as mammoths.

Extant organism found in the La Brea Tar Pits include coyotes.
Extant organism found in the La Brea Tar Pits include coyotes.

The fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits include numerous extinct Pleistocene megafauna — ancient bison, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mastodons, mammoths, short-faced bears, ground sloths, even the North American camel and llama. Extant organisms are also found in great numbers, including cougars, bobcats, coyotes, grey wolves, raccoons, skunks, tapirs, weasels, as well as numerous insects and plants. A partial human skeleton was even found, a Native American woman who lived about 9,000 years ago.

Raccoons are one of the extant creatures found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Raccoons are one of the extant creatures found in the La Brea Tar Pits.

The La Brea Tar Pits remain one of the most famous landmarks in Los Angeles. They are accompanied by scale models of mammoths, and the associated museum contains models of sloths, saber-tooth cats, and other animals, as well as numerous mounted fossils.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

malena

The Campanile at UC Berkeley houses some fossils, many of which were dug up at the Los Angeles La Brea Tar Pits.

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    • Cougars are one of the creatures that have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits that still exist.
      By: SandmanX
      Cougars are one of the creatures that have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits that still exist.
    • Los Angeles is the site of the La Brea Tar Pits.
      By: Brian Weed
      Los Angeles is the site of the La Brea Tar Pits.
    • Extant organism found in the La Brea Tar Pits include coyotes.
      By: Ronnie Howard
      Extant organism found in the La Brea Tar Pits include coyotes.
    • Raccoons are one of the extant creatures found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
      By: Lars Christensen
      Raccoons are one of the extant creatures found in the La Brea Tar Pits.