ECO S Eugene

Economic S Eugene

LaBrea Boneyard

Tar Pit Bones

It’s a funny thing about bones. They seem so substantial that you would expect them to last forever. If they did, however, you would find the woods piled high with skeletons. Normally those bones which are not immediately eaten after an animal’s death yield to the ravages of rodents, fungi, or soil acids. Those bones which become preserved as fossils owe their preservation to a series of fortuitous circumstances involving their burial in some medium which excludes air and destructive organisms. Usually such an environment is to be found in swamps or bogs or on the bottom of standing bodies of water in which sediments are being deposited.

Sometimes, in her boundless originality, nature devises a unique mausoleum. Preeminent among such are the asphalt pits at Rancho La Brea on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where for more than a million years oil has been seeping to the surface of the ground. Upon loss of its more volatile constituents a deep, flatly spreading, residue of gooey, viscous asphalt is left. Through all this great length of time it has served as a stupendous “fly paper,” trapping an infinite number and variety of animals from mice to mammoths. More than three million bones have been recovered from these pits, yet authorities declare that its surface has barely been scratched.

La Brea Tar Pit tiger imageCountless dramatic episodes must have contributed to this paleontological Lorelei. Lured by thirst to drink from the shimmering water pooled on the surface, mammoths, mastodons, horses, and camels would step to their doom, every struggle imprisoning then more inevitably in the tenacious tar. Lions, sabertooths, wolves, and vultures, tempted by the vision of easy prey, would in turn succumb to the same fate.

Although this quagmire may have enforced a cruel death upon hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting beasts it has proved to be one of science’s richest storehouses. Scores of animals of the glacial period, whose presence in this country is otherwise unknown, have been recognized among the relics of this natural ossuary. There are many, too, which have never been found elsewhere, as well as many whose relatives still live on other continents but which disappeared from this one long before the advent of the white man.

The sabertooth, a huge, heavily built cat, had six-inch upper canines. The dire wolf, his confrere in carnage, was among the largest of wolves.

From the [[Rancho La Brea]] pitch pools in California, over three million bones have to date been recovered. The Museum’s acquisition of a large dire wolf skull and a cast of a sabertooth skull, through the generosity of the University of California, make interesting reading.