Friday, April 10, 2009

Geeking out at the tar pits

Squee! I just came back from an interview at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles to be a volunteer lab worker.


I prepped a bit so I could seem somewhat knowledgeable and know how to pronounce Pleistocene. It didn't really matter, as I spent most of the time gawking at all the bones on display and getting a first hand tour of the lab.

Let me back up a bit. Growing up in Los Angeles, I visited the La Brea tar pits more times than I can could count. I remember pressing my face up against the glass of the fishbowl laboratory inside the museum and watching the white-coated scientist clean bones.

It was then that I decided I wanted to be a "paleontologist slash archeologist" which sounded incredibly precocious from a 5 year old and made people think I was super smart. I also spent most of my free time reading books about dinosaurs.

Like this one:
danny dinosaur Pictures, Images and Photos

Just kidding. That was my lame brother's favorite book. I liked my dinosaurs ferocious. Not tame smiling pets that let you ride around on them. I liked them with sharp teeth and claws and the ability to rend flesh.

So I really liked dinosaurs. I had dinosaur toys and went to dinosaur day camps (:blushes:) where we made fake dino tracks with stuff you could find in your kitchen. As I got older, the dino stuff fell by the wayside to be replaced by music, and then AP classes, and then the hedonism of college. I was still interested in museums (and ended up doing research in grad school on the subject), but the dino stuff went dormant.

But then I saw this in February article
Researchers from the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits have barely begun extracting the fossils from the sandy, tarry matrix of soil, but they expect the find to double the size of the museum's collection from the period, already the largest in the world.

Among their finds, to be formally announced today, is the nearly intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth -- named Zed by researchers -- a prize discovery because only bits and pieces of mammoths had previously been found in the tar pits.

But researchers are perhaps even more excited about finding smaller fossils of tree trunks, turtles, snails, clams, millipedes, fish, gophers and even mats of oak leaves. In the early 1900s, the first excavators at La Brea threw out similar items in their haste to find prized animal bones, and crucial information about the period was lost.

And I was like, dude, (told you I grew up in LA, remember?) they totally need people to dig up all those damn bones! Why can't that person be me? So I called. And apparently everyone else had read that same article and they weren't even taking applications. Sadness. But then I called in April later after all the fervor had died down and got an interview. Yes!

The interview wasn't really an interview - the head lab person just showed me around the lab. It was so amazing - here I was inside the fishbowl! I could hardly pay attention to her as my eye kept wandering to Zed's femur that an assistant was cleaning or his ginormous jaw on display. A plaster cast held a portion of his articulated spine, And all along the shelves were skulls and various bones, teeth, and claws. They were everywhere. Bones that are 40,000 years old... from creatures that roamed California during the Ice Age alongside our human ancestors. How friggin cool is that?! I wish I could have snapped pictures, but I didn't think that was appropriate.

Apparently, the first day or two volunteers sort microfossils (shells, insects, seeds, pieces of plants) from piles of dirt which isn't as cool as a saber-tooth cat skull, but it's still pretty neat. Then you get to the bigger stuff - detailing larger bones. Then after that, I'd get to actually dig up bones from Project 23.

The bones on the top of the shelf are used to aid in classification.


Since 1906, over a million bones have been found from 231 species of vertebrates. In addition, 159 kinds of plants and 234 kinds of invertebrates have been identified. It is estimated that the collections at the Page Museum contain about three million items.

They have to store them somewhere. Like in Yuban coffee boxes.


Or in this long hallway that stretches as far as the eye can see. It stores most of the large mammal bones... Birds are in another wing and there are other storage areas.


After the interview/tour was over, I went exploring.

I always felt sorry for the poor baby mastodon watching his trapped dad.


The crazy thing is that scattered around the museum grounds are random patches where the asphalt seeps through to the surface.


I did some investigation and determined that it was indeed extremely sticky.


Pit 91 is the site of the most recent excavations which typically have happened in the summer.


It's closed down now so that full attention can be paid to the crates of Project 23. They have five years of funding, so time is of the essence and excavations will be year round.


God willing, I'll be knee deep in one of these crates sometime soon. Hopefully a spot will open up and I'll get my phone call! But you what, even if I never hear from them again, I've had a very memorable day. :)


WeezerMonkey said...


It's been so long since I visited the Pits. Let me know if you get the gig! Maybe I will visit you!

Ann Marie said...

How exciting!

*Adds the Tar Pits to list of things to do in L.A.*

Liz said...

how cool!

Grace said...

I used to LOVE going to La Brea Tar Pits, and the baby mastodon made me sad too, lol.

I confess, the Danny the Dino book is very cute and I will be getting it for my DD soon. I'm probably leading her down the wrong path. haha

Haylow said...

That WAS a great book! I cant seem to remember how it went, but I remember I Liked it!

10yearstogether said...

I have to admit that most of this post was over my head (surprise surprise) but I understood enough to know you really want the job and I HOPE YOU GET IT! I'll make a mental note that the tarpits are a cool thing to visit in LA.

Are you f***ing serious? said...

I like to see that I wasn't the only five year old who dreamt about working in the fishbowl. Did you ever get the call???