Did you know that woodpeckers (Family Picidae) have been recovered from La Brea Tar Pits? Ornithology curator Dr. Kenneth Campbell and Dr. Zbigniew Bochenski from the Polish Academy of Sciences are currently examining all of the specimens from this family of birds that are housed in our collections. Since beginning this work a couple of weeks ago, we have already added over one hundred new cataloged records from the early excavations. Now with a clear search image for certain features on particular bones we are identifying even more woodpeckers from our current Project 23 excavation! Since several of these species are typically tree dwellers, it is curious that they got trapped in the ground seeping asphalt. Stay tuned for more on woodpeckers and new discoveries from La Brea Tar Pits!
This small phalanx (toe bone) recently found in Box 14 of Project 23 is from a predatory bird that we don't find here as often as we do others—an owl. Because owls have phalanges that can be easily distinguished from other birds here at Rancho La Brea, we were able to immediately identify it. Many different kinds of owls lived here during the Late Pleistocene, and it's yet to be determined which one this is.
In Box 14 of Project 23, we have uncovered what appears to be a Canis dirus (dire wolf) pelvis, with all three parts still associated (together). The right and left innominates (hip bones) and the sacrum (the piece of the spine that connects the other two) are oriented together nearly the same as they would have been when the animal was alive. Usually, we here at Rancho La Brea find these three bones separate in the tangled jumble of our typical deposits, where skeletal disarticulation and mixing of bones from different individuals is the "norm". This is why we're so interested in these particular fossils, because it is most likely that these are from one individual dire wolf. However, we'll have to wait until the bones are fully excavated and cleaned to be more sure.
A large bird premaxilla (beak part) was found in Box 14 this morning! It's yet to be identified. We have been finding many birds in Box 14. They range in size from small passerines (perching birds) to the large condor-like teratorn Teratornis merriami, that had a wingspan of up to 12 feet.
While digging in Box 14, we recently excavated a fragment of neural spine from a large herbivore vertebra. (Neural spines are the pokey bits that make up the "bumps" you can feel running down your spine, where some of your back muscles attach.) Later, we happened to be excavating a large herbivore vertebra nearby that had a missing neural spine, and it got us thinking. Now usually, we're digging in tangled jumbles of many, many fossils, and things are rarely still associated (nearby each other). Something about the shape of the break, however, seemed familiar to us, and sure enough, when we got the fragment of neural spine back out, we had a Cinderella's slipper moment! We hope that this may end up belonging to the potential adult bison individual we've been recovering from this deposit, and help us tell more of its story.
A coyote atlas and a dire wolf maxilla in a toothy entanglement
May 12, 2014
As currently exposed in Box 14, this coyote atlas (second neck vertebra) is sitting on top of a dire wolf maxilla (upper jaw) with the dire wolf's canine going right through the space for the coyote's spinal cord. It's a great example of how our fossils at Rancho La Brea are most often found “tangled” together. This results from the bones of many different animals being mixed together after becoming ensnared in the asphalt. The mixing may be the result of trampling and of movement of the asphalt and may take place over thousands of years. This, of course, means that the coyote wasn't necessarily the dire wolf's presumed dinner.
An exciting large bird skull element was found in Box 14 recently! This is Project 23’s first beak from the extinct predatory bird Teratornis merriami. With a wingspan of 12 ft and weighing possibly 32 lbs, Merriam’s Teratorn is the largest bird found at Rancho La Brea and ranks among the largest known flying birds.
Work continues on in Box 14, and some of the bison bones in the center of the deposit are in process of removal. This image shows: a tibia (1) that was removed Saturday, a scapula (2) that is broken in place, and a left metacarpal (3) located below the scapula.
Fresh out of the ground in Box 14, and just in time for Thanksgiving, we found the upper part of a right tarsometatarsus (lower leg bone) of an extinct California turkey, Meleagris californicus. Only male turkeys have the spur that protrudes from the rear of this bone, making it a quick and easy way to identify the sex of the individual. Male turkeys use the spur in a kicking motion to help fend off predators.
Now that SVP is over, we are back to digging in Box 14. One significant discovery from the past couple days is this fragment of a juvenile horse mandible. We recovered another fragment of a very young horse mandible in Box 14 last January in an adjacent grid and it is most likely that they are from the same individual. So far in Box 14 we have juvenile representatives of mastodon, camel, dwarf pronghorn, dire wolf and horse.
We have been busy lately preparing for visitors to our museum from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's Annual Meeting that is happening next week in Los Angeles. Shown here, the Page Museum Research and Collections staff works on a new lineup of skulls in the lab, and volunteer Bethany glops in Pit 91.
The saber-toothed cat femur on the left is currently being excavated in Box 13. The damage to its surface is not from a scavenger but is called "pit wear." The large grooves on the surface of this bone formed when it moved against other bones within the asphalt seep. The cause of the movement is uncertain but could conceivably represent migration of the asphalt within the seep, trampling from other animals that were caught in the seep, or the result of earthquake activity.
This is an image of a section of millipede that was excavated in box 1 from hard asphaltic sandy matrix. Upon close inspection, some of its tiny legs are still attached to its body and may even be complete (see lower section of image).
Recently found while cleaning bulk matrix from deposit 1 in the lab, this is a dentary of a juvenile dwarf pronghorn, Capromeryx minor. It is probably the youngest pronghorn individual represented in our cataloged collection.
Fossil insect traces reveal ancient climate, entrapment, and fossilization at La Brea Tar Pits
Jul 3, 2013
The paper, entitled "Paleoecological and taphonomic implications of insect-damaged Pleistocene vertebrate remains from Rancho La Brea, southern California," will be published in the journal PLoS One on July 3, 2013
We opened our 9th Project 23 box last week! This one is part of deposit 13 and is located on the east side of the compound, being shaded by our Page Museum canopy. Many large vertebrate fossils were exposed at its surface, including the back of a saber-toothed cat skull, a saber-toothed cat cervical vertebra, dire wolf teeth, large bird bones, and large herbivore long bone fragments and teeth. A condor-sized humerus and juvenile horse tibia are among what has so far been excavated. Box 13 is another deposit packed with well preserved fossils!
We are excited about a new addition to the list of species recovered from Project 23. Our first record of the freshwater limpet Ferrissia walkeri was found in the matrix from a sloth skull excavated from the Box 7 series. This well preserved complete specimen is the first mollusk species that Project 23 has added to the Rancho La Brea faunal list. Ferrissia walkeri is known from other Late Pleistocene localities in Southern California and is usually found in fragments because it is fragile.
The excavation of the main vent deposit in Box 1 is done! We have been excavating it since August 2008 and measured out 14,000 fossils from the four main grids of the deposit. That is just a preliminary number of fossils from those grids. The number of fossils will multiply significantly once the matrix has been processed due to the high concentrations of microfossils preserved that were too small to measure. All that's left where the main deposit was is a sticky pile of burlap that was used to support the deposit's bottom. The rest of Box 1 is currently on hold. The data from this deposit can will help researchers understand how large vent deposits are formed and how the animals and plants died and ended up there. The microfossils will help us understand the habitat and climate of the Los Angeles Basin 35,000 years ago. Here is a preliminary count of the minimum number of large individuals from this deposit from what has been cleaned and cataloged so far:
Aside from digging fossils at the tar pits, a preparator’s position description includes “and other duties as necessary.” A couple weeks ago, this included rescuing the floating lake pit mammoth! It had drifted south from a broken anchor and ended up mired in sediment by the sidewalk bridge, looking as if it were calling out in distress to passersby. We could have put a sign up that said "Please don't feed the mammoth!" But it really belonged back with its family and operations needed our assistance with its rescue. First, we had to "unstick" the mammoth by pulling on it with a rope and nudging it with a pole. The mammoth was then dragged to its normal area with the rope tied off to a stake to wait for its re-chaining. All in a day's work!
The above image is a kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) right dentary, another notable specimen from Box 14 microfossil sorting. The roots of its inscisor and cheek teeth are partially exposed. There are 12 living species of Dipodomys in California, with eight being in Southern California.
Recently found in Box 14, this is a Harlan's giant ground sloth, Paramylodon harlani, right premaxilla, which is the part of the skull that supports the upper lip. It is the first sloth premaxilla to have been found in Project 23, and a rare element to find at Rancho La Brea. We have also found the back half of a sloth skull, vertebrae and ribs in the same deposit.
We are currently focusing on washing matrix just from Box 14 because its asphalt saturated sands contain thousands of microfossils! The image above shows an example of what we have been finding during sorting.
This image shows the lower left jaw of a juvenile mastodon from Box 14, aka "Little Timmy," as it occurred with other fossils in the deposit. This jaw, which is now in the Lab, is one of many elements of Little Timmy recovered from Box 14. As mastodons are rare at Rancho La Brea, and as Timmy is a juvenile, it is likely that all the immature mastodon elements from this deposit are from the same individual. Asphaltic deposits normally consist of a jumbled mass of bones from many different individuals. Identification of a rare animal leads to better understanding of the how its bones were distributed throughout the deposit, which in turn gives us insight as to how the deposits were formed.
Based on his tooth eruption, Little Timmy may be the second youngest mastodon ever found at Rancho La Brea.
Box 12, our 8th box opened, is now our 6th box completed! Volunteer Jack fills the last buckets of matrix from Box 12 in the above image. When we opened Box 12 about a year ago, I wrote in the The Excavatrix about how it had some nice examples of permineralized bone, which is rarely found at Rancho La Brea, that were loose at the surface and put into buckets at the time of the entire deposit's removal from the ground.
During the past year, this asphalt-saturated stream deposit has yielded about 90 buckets of matrix. We have found a small amount of wood, leaves, freshwater shells, and a few measured bones, including a saber-toothed cat toe and horse tooth fragment. Microfossils found included a small-sized snake vertebra and a gopher tooth.
We are now preparing to open a much larger deposit, Box 5A, which we hope will contain more of the camel and baby mammoth skeletons from its completed counterpart Box 5B!
This bird beak, recently recovered from Box 1, is from an extinct vulture of the genus Breagyps. Close in size to living condors, Breagyps has a distinctive long beak and is one of the rarer vultures from Rancho La Brea. This is the first identified element of this vulture from Project 23, and only the fourth beak ever found at Rancho La Brea.
These two thoracic (mid-back) vertebrae from a saber-toothed cat were recently excavated in Box 14. They are pathologically fused together and have other signs of arthritis. Life for this animal would have been painful but it survived successfully until it became mired in an asphalt seep. The abundance of excellently preserved fossils from Rancho La Brea helps us to piece together the life stories of the animals that used to live here.
Recently, every skull from the dire wolf skull exhibit at the Page Museum was removed so that new lights could be installed in the exhibit! During this four day process, each of the 400 skulls was taken down, cleaned, photographed, and then re-installed.
This is a proximal phalanx of a juvenile camel found in Box 14. The only camel bone previously recovered from this deposit is a juvenile femur. As camels are not very common at Rancho La Brea, and as both bones are immature, they could be from the same individual.
Volunteer Sean Campbell recently found this coyote baculum (penis bone) in Box 1. The baculum is present in male primates, rodents, insectivores, carnivores, pinnipeds, and bats. So far from Project 23 we have recovered one weasel and three dire wolf bacula. This is the first coyote baculum identified from Project 23!
This is a fragment from the plastron of a large chelonian (the group that unites turtles, tortoises and terrapins) recovered from Box 10A of Project 23. Box 10A was a small deposit with a lot of broken bones. Its excavation was completed in 2009 but not many of its fossils have been processed yet. Other elements of this individual are currently being prepared. It may represent the only tortoise species known from Rancho La Brea!
The BBC has just finished filming behind-the-scenes at the Page Museum for an upcoming three part documentary called “The Ice Age”. Presenter Dr. Alice Roberts interviewed and interacted with staff and volunteers in the collections areas, the Fishbowl Lab, and at the Project 23 excavations. With CGI animals, interesting conversations, and great footage this promises to be an exciting show. Watch out for its release in spring 2013!
According to Research Associate Chris Shaw, these marks were made by a carnivore. There are two clearly defined depressed fractures on the anterior medial (inner) surface of this ilium (part of the pelvis) and one on the lateral (outer) surface, suggesting that this animal was bitten by a carnivore hard enough for their teeth to puncture the bone. These sorts of paleo-pathologies are not very common at Rancho La Brea and this is the first evidence of possible bite marks identified from Project 23. In Box 1, excavators have found the remains of several baby bison. This individual (catalog number P23-10498) was very young when it became mired in the asphalt.
This leaf, most likely oak, was found in the hard asphalt of Box 12 last week. It is another example of the excellent preservation of plant material found at the La Brea Tar Pits, having retained its color from when it fell into the asphalt tens of thousands of years ago. Project 23 has even yielded mats of oak leaves, particularly in Box 1, in which we also find the remains of some of the detritivores who used to live in this habitat.
Deposit 1 is the first box of Project 23 that has been opened, and it is also the largest at an estimated 123,000 pounds. From the surface to its base, the deposit is just more than nine levels or 230 cm (7.5 feet). After 3½ years of digging, we have just reached the bottom of it in grid A-1!
This grid is of the Southeast portion of the large vent deposit in the Southern end of the box. Only the non-asphaltic, non-fossil dirt was removed in this grid to expose around the asphalt/fossil sediments, providing an excellent vertical view of the lower portion of the huge vent deposit, where we have measured 4,204 fossils so far.