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Almost Fossils

Pit 91 La Brea Tar Pits. Photo courtesy Noella Ballenger.
Pit 91 La Brea Tar Pits. Photo courtesy Noella Ballenger.

Visitors to the Rancho La Brea “Tar Pits” are a bit incredulous when told large and powerful animals, such as the American lion, mastodon, and giant ground sloth, were snared in only a few inches of asphalt. Their expressions change, though, as they test their strength against the tar at an exhibit in the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries.

The puddles of asphalt exert incredible stopping power. Paleontologists at the tar pits report that, at other places where asphalt seeps through the ground, full-grown cattle have died after being trapped in just over an inch of asphalt. Less than half an inch got me.

Asphalt occasionally comes up into the landscaped surface of the park surrounding the deposits at La Brea. While visiting the Pit 91 enclosure, where much of the excavation at La Brea goes on, I unwittingly stepped into the insidious, dust-covered beginnings of a new seep.

Seeing my astonishment, when I couldn’t move, one of the paleontologists cried, “That’s a perfect example of how the animals were caught!” I needed no more convincing.

But I had good company. No less a personage than film director David Attenborough had to be tugged from the tar when he visited Rancho La Brea during the filming of his series, “Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives.”

I got off easily, returning home with my shoes and some shreds of pride. However, one assistant, who walked across Pit 10’s hardened asphalt in the winter, got a surprise when he followed the same path across the compound the following summer and was caught fast in the thick, soft asphalt. “I think his shoes are still in there,” said one paleontologist.

Although the tar snares the casual visitor, the people who work on the excavation daily have the greatest risk of getting stuck. Excavators commonly lose boots or gloves to the tar. Unlike animals trapped centuries ago, humans usually have someone to pull them out.

One of the paleontologists needed that help one day when he was mired. While he was trying to remove a sign tossed into a pit by vandals, the tar oozed up past his ankles. While waiting for a volunteer to return with help, he heard a man outside telling his son that the man in the tar was sinking, just like a mammoth. When help finally came, it took two people to pull him out. He almost lost his boots, he said. “The lab supervisor kept yelling, ‘Forget the damn boots!’ But they’re good boots.”

Perhaps that was how a defiant saber-tooth cat felt, his paws sticking in the asphalt yet unwilling to give up his meal.

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