Oil, Tar and Giant Animals in Downtown L.A.

According to legend, Edward L.Doheny was in the downtown area when he noticed a cart with a black substance on its wheels. He asked the driver where he had come from and the man pointed in a northeast direction. Doheny investigated and soon borrowed money to buy 1000 acres of land in what is now the Echo Park area, but which was then outside the city.

Soon the well Doheny dug was producing 45 barrels of oil per day and he was on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in America. That original oil field, located along Glendale Boulevard between

Beverly Boulevard and Colton Avenue, has long-since disappeared. But in its heyday it was a remarkable collection of mostly rag tag derricks covering the hillside. Within a few years there were over 200 oil

companies and 2500 wells within the city limits. The Los Angeles area would become one of the major oil-producing areas of the world.

Doheny is usually credited with the discovery of oil in Los Angeles in 1892, and his oil well certainly set off one of the first land booms of the city. Nevertheless, the Indians were aware of the tar pits and so

were the Spanish explorers who came through in 1769.

Father Juan Crespi noted in his diary at that time that some members of the party "saw some large marshes of a certain substance like pitch; they were boiling and bubbling, and the pitch came out mixed with an abundance of water." What they saw, of course, were the La Brea tar pits, which are located several miles from this first producing oil field.

Between 1906 and 1915 thousands of Ice Age fossils were recovered from the pits; over 500,000 specimens have been recoved. A museum, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, has been constructed adjacent to the tar pits. It houses many of the major finds from the tar pits.

Visit an exhibit called "Teeth, Tusks, and Tarpits" to see how the La Brea Tarpits might have looked like 40,000-50,000 years ago.

Today, this spot is in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, eloquent testimony to urban sprawl, but the pools and deposits of asphalt still remain. For these are the La Brea tar pits, containing one of the

richest, best preserved, and best studied assemblages of Pleistocene vertebrates, including at least 59 species of mammal and over 135 species of bird. The tar pit fossils bear eloquent witness to life in

southern California from 40,000 to 8,000 years ago; aside from vertebrates, they include plants, mollusks, and insects -- over 660 species of organisms in all.

Tar pits form when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in the Earth's crust; the light fraction of the oil evaporates, leaving behind the heavy tar, or asphalt, in sticky pools. Tar from the La Brea tar pits was used for thousands of years by local native Americans, as a glue and as waterproof caulking for baskets and canoes. After the arrival of Westerners, the tar from these pits was mined and used for

roofing by the inhabitants of the nearby town of Pueblo de Nuestra Se & #324;ora la Reina de Los Angeles.

The bones occasionally found in the tar were first thought to be those of unlucky cattle. It was not until 1901 that the first scientific excavation of the pits were carried out. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, notably Professor John C. Merriam and his students, were among the first researchers to work on the La Brea fossils. Today, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, right next door to the tar pits themselves, displays huge numbers of La Brea fossils. The Page Museum is part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Life in Los Angeles was somewhat cooler and moister 40,000 years ago than it is today, as we can tell by examining the plant fossils from La Brea. Many of the plants and animals found in La Brea are identical or almost identical with species that still live in the area -- or that would be living in the area had Los Angeles not gotten in the way. Yet a number of the large animal species found at La Brea are no longer found in North America: native horses, camels, mammoths and mastodons, longhorned bison, and sabre-toothed cats.

In today's ecosystems herbivores are much more abundant than carnivores. It is therefore curious that at La Brea about 90% of the mammal fossils found represent carnivores. Most of the bird fossils are also predators or scavengers, including vultures, condors, eagles, and giant, extinct, storklike birds known as teratorns. Why is this the case? If a pack of carnivorous mammals were to chase a lone prey animal into the tar pits, both predators and prey would become trapped. This would not have to be a frequent occurrence -- an average of one major entrapment every ten years, over a period of 30,000 years, would be sufficient to account for the number of fossils found at La Brea. Scavenging animals, drawn to feed on trapped animals, would have a chance of getting trapped themselves. This would explain the preponderance of carnivores and scavengers.

Two denizens of the La Brea tar pits, now in the University of California Museum of Paleontology collections, are listed below.

Smilodon californicus

Smilodon, the most famous of the sabre-toothed cats, is the second most common fossil at La Brea. Literally hundreds of thousands of its bones have been found, representing thousands of individuals. It was first described by Professor John C. Merriam and his student Chester Stock in 1932. Today, it is the California state fossil. But Smilodon was not restricted to California; it ranged over much of North and South America.

Canis lupus furlongi

This fossil was originally described as the species Canis milleri, but restudy has shown that it is a subspecies of C. lupus, the gray wolf. In the Pleistocene, gray wolves shared the region with C. dirus, the dire wolf. Gray wolves had the largest natural range of any mammal species except for Homo sapiens; at one time they were found in every habitat of the Northern Hemisphere except for deserts and the tropics. Today, the gray wolf has largely been exterminated in Europe, the United States except for Alaska, and Mexico.

For more about La Brea, visit the George C. Page Museum, located by the pits themselves.

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