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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - George Page Museum

Updated on March 30, 2010

George Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, California

The Los Angeles County Museum is the place to see dinosaurs in Southern California, but if you want to get blown away by fossils, drive across town to the Page Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits. The Page Museum, opened in 1977, seems a bit defensive about the lack of dinosaurs here (a fact that's pointed out in two videos), but it does house the world's largest collection of Ice Age mammals and birds - more than 30 skeletons total. There's a ground sloth the size of a bear, a trio of saber-toothed cat skeletons (Smilodon, the official state fossil of California), and a wall display with over 400 dire-wolf skulls.

All these fossils, plus millions more in the museum's collection, were excavated from the nearby tar pits. The deposits, actually asphalt and not tar, seep up from an underground petroleum reservoir. Between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, these pools of sticky asphalt ensnared all manner of creatures, from snails to Smilodons. The grazing animals, including camels, giant sloths, and mastodons, stuck to the pits like flies to flypaper. Anticipating an easy meal, predators and scavengers descended upon the trapped herbivores and got stuck, too. In all, 650 animal species and nearly four million individual fossils have been recovered from the tar pits over the last 100 years, an embarrassment of riches beyond the imagination of most palaeontologists.

The Page Museum reflects the diversity of animal life in the Los Angeles Basin during the Pleistocene Epoch. In addition to skeletons of sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats, you'll see mastodons (for the kids, there's also a cheesy animatronic version of a woolly mammoth, complete with fake fur), western camel, bison, lions, short-faced bears, and hundreds of birds. There's even the skeleton of a woman who died or was deliberately buried in a pit over 9,000 years ago. All the skeletons on display are real, but most specimens have been assembled from the bones of many individuals.

In addition to fossils, an interactive exhibit shows how difficult it is to free metal "limbs" (representing animal legs) from sticky asphalt. You can also see researchers and volunteers clean and sort bones inside a glass-walled prep lab.

The Page Museum, on "Museum Row" in Hancock Park, is a short stroll from the only working fossil dig within a major city, Pit 91 (there are more than 100 pit excavations in the area). In the summer, when the pit is softened by the California sun, researchers and volunteers pick through the fragrant, gooey asphalt, extracting blackened bones, fossil fragments, and plant material. An observation deck above the 15-foot-deep dig gives you a bird-s-eye view of the messy, painstaking work. The ongoing research at Pit 91 will examine every fossil fragment from the tiniest seedpod to the largest mastodon skull, in order to complete a picture of life during the last Ice Age. The evidence so far indicates that Los Angeles was cooler and more humid during the Pleistocene, resembling San Francisco's present climate. Present-day Angelenos have something to be thankful for.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Peabody Museum

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