The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

October 28, 2013

Scientists dig for fossils in LA a century later

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Surrounded by a gooey graveyard of prehistoric beasts, a small crew diligently wades through a backlog of fossil finds from a century of excavation at the La Brea Tar Pits in the heart of Los Angeles.

Digs over the years have unearthed bones of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and other unsuspecting Ice Age creatures that became trapped in ponds of sticky asphalt. But it's the smaller discoveries — plants, insects and rodents — in recent years that are shaping scientists' views of life in the region 11,000 to 50,000 years ago.

"Earlier excavations really missed a great part of the story," said John Harris, chief curator at the George C. Page Museum, which oversees the fossil collection. People "were only taking out bones they could see, but it's the hidden bones that provide clues to the environment."

The museum on Monday celebrates 100 years of digging, which has recovered some 5.5 million bones representing more than 600 species of animals and plants, the richest cache of Ice Age fossils.

There's so much left to do that it could easily take another century to complete. On a recent Wednesday, a volunteer in a white lab coat pounded away at a bison skull in the museum's fishbowl laboratory where visitors can witness paleontology in action. Nearby, two workers hunched over microscopes, sorting bone fragments belonging to extinct creatures.

In the back storage, floor-to-ceiling shelves of wooden crates house bones that need to be cleaned, identified or labeled. The museum estimates it has 100,000 specimens to catalog and another million to scrub.

Long before skyscrapers towered over Wilshire Boulevard, giant beasts ruled the land. Back then, sagebrush scrub covered the basin, home to herds of mammoths, bison, camels and ground sloths. Mastodons hung out in the woodlands. Lurking were meat-eating predators including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and giant jaguars.

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