Dig this! La Brea fossils are ready for their close-up

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Once upon a time, members of the Hillcrest Country Club received royalties from the juice produced by the Cheviot Hills Oil Field on which it sits. The Inglewood Oil Field in Baldwin Hills remains productive, and has dressed sets for "L.A. Confidential," "There Will Be Blood" and a bunch of other movies. Beverly Hills' eponymous field supports a working rig hard by the high school track that, some people say, subsidizes teacher salaries.

L.A. is oilier than a hedge fund manager with a portfolio full of credit default swaps. We make petroleum like Napa makes wine, and lots of people have shared in the riches.

But the kind of enduring wealth that defines an era and possibly could save the planet is found only in the Salt Lake Oil Field stuck between the LACMA rock and the hard place of Wilshire's Miracle Mile. It's the La Brea Tar Pits, a place so sticky they named it twice.

Fun Fact!
The Spanish word for "tar" is "brea."

Generations of Angelenos have visited the tar pits, have inhaled their signature aroma and played on the squishy grass next to the Page fossil museum where, if you're not careful, the tar sticks to your shoe where it still bubbles up through the otherwise pristine lawn.

The Page Museum has been a popular attraction since it opened in 1977, but in recent years, two of the tar pits' main draws -- the Observation Pit and Pit 91 -- have been closed to the public. At the end of this month, however, they reopen for a new! improved! visitor experience.

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Asphalt, impermeable gunk that impregnates hollow bones, preserves fossils such as these dire wolf and saber-tooth cat skulls, and mastodon pelvis recreated from the original specimens.

At the media preview earlier this week, we learned that the Observation Pit originally opened in 1952 so people could watch excavators liberate the fossils of mammoths, mastodons, saber-tooth cats and other late Pleistocene residents who met their fate in the inky goo. Its circular design is reminiscent of a small, upside-down Guggenheim Museum -- you spiral down to muck-level observation of the tar-embedded sculpture made not by people, but by the preservative properties of petroleum 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.

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The Observation Pit was closed in the early 1990s; its 2014 makeover supplants active excavation with explanatory signage and a staged deposit of representative bones originally found here and in other pits nearby.

Pit 91 reopens to its former purpose as a demonstration site where workers slog through the heavy tar in search of, at this point, mostly smaller artifacts such as insects, plants and mollusks. Excavation began here 100 years ago, but cave-ins and flooding terminated the effort until 1969, when work began anew until 2007. During that period, its yield doubled the number of species -- not specimens, species -- that scientists had collected from all the other tar pits combined. The tally now is about 230 vertebrates, 125 invertebrates and 160 plants.

Fun Fact!

In 2007, 3,388 specimens were recovered from Pit 91

Pit 91 closed to looky-loos when the art museum's underground parking construction yielded fossils that took excavation priority. The new demonstration site now reaches 15 feet deep, and experts estimate that the boneyard extends possibly another eight feet. You can watch as workers methodically plumb the gooey ground, removing asphalt in buckets as they go. You might be driving home later on a street resurfaced from what the diggers didn't want and didn't waste.

Earlier collectors found most of the big bones -- dire wolf skulls, sloth jaws, mammoth bits -- so now they're finding tinier fare. John Harris, chief curator of the Page Museum, said, "It's the little fossils that tell us about the environment." And if there's one message museum folks hope the public takes home from a tar pit tour, it's that indicator species found here might teach us how to adapt to our Ice Age climate change.

Our epoch is characterized by alternating intervals of relative warm and cold. Because the intervals we're experiencing now are shorter and the temperature changes less extreme, we need to figure out fast how more humble creatures managed the volatility. Our ability to survive, much less thrive, could depend on it.

Fun Fact!

As a 10-year-old, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who still lives nearby, threw a rock into a tar pit, he said, "to see if it would sink." It didn't.

"Our homogenous climate is unusual," said Robin O'Keefe, an evolutionary biologist. He said we're supposed to be leaving a warmer interval for a more glacial period that should occur before the end of the century. Asked what we can expect to see and feel from this change, he said, simply, "Nobody knows."

That's why we're lucky to have such good teachers as the rare leafcutter bee fossils discovered in Pit 91, according to Anna Holden, a curator for the tar pits' insect collection. Like many other insect fossils excavated here, these critters still live on planet Earth, although not here because the climate's not what it used to be. What adaptations did they make through previous intervals that might help us understand today how to save honey bees from colony collapse? What did they do that saber-tooth cats did not?

Fun Fact!

Smilodon fatalis (saber-tooth cat) is the California state fossil.

One impediment they didn't have to overcome was humans, said O'Keefe. "We can see animals adapting to a warming climate at La Brea. Then humans show up and all the big ones disappear. We haven't been able to establish causality there yet, but we are working on it."

Several way-cool exhibits at the Page Museum help make the connection from getting stuck in tar to getting stuck in a climate coffin. When you pull on a metal bar sunk deep into the asphalt you see why curiosity killed the saber-tooth cat. It's the original Hotel California, where you can check out any time, but you can never leave.

You can bathe in the eerie gold light of the dire wolf skull display, a sample of the 4,000 such specimens excavators have released from their tarry graves.

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You can watch workers cleaning fossils they've named "Zed," a Columbian mammoth discovered in what's now the LACMA parking structure, "Fluffy," an American lion and "Enrique," a Harlan's ground sloth.

You can forgive the early miners working on Henry Hancock's rancho for thinking that the asphalt they recovered here would pave the road to riches; for thinking that the bones they found belonged to former residents' grazing sheep and cattle. How could they know that, in the words of Luis Chiappe, vice president of research and collections for the Natural History Museum, these 23 acres of tar pits are "the miracle of Miracle Mile, ... a library of the Ice Age."

How could they know that the real value lay not in the tar, but in the tar babies, and that their life story could inform our own?

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For information about the La Brea Tar Pits and the Page Museum, a member of the Natural History Museum family of L.A. County, link here.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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