Current Research

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The collections at Rancho La Brea are still at the core of late Pleistocene North American research today. Staff, Research Associates, professional paleontologists, and graduate students frequent the collections throughout the year. Today's research ranges from carbon-14 dating projects to asphalt-dwelling microbial ecology to traditional taxonomic and functional studies. Many questions still remain to be answered. The collections are available for any appropriately qualified person interested in doing formal research. All inquiries must be made through the Collections Manager, including requests for loans of specimens. We only loan specimens to institutions.

Some of the collections are available online at http://collections.nhm.org

STAFF RESEARCH

Dr. Kenneth E. Campbell
Curator of Fossil Birds, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

My current research on the fossil birds of Rancho La Brea includes two major projects. One is the detailed description of the bones of teratorns and the identification of distinguishing characteristics of the two genera and species that occur in the tar pit collections. The second is a complete reevaluation of the nine species of fossil owls in the collections, which is undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Zbigniew Bochenski of Poland. The study of the owls will result in the description of new genera and species. A recently completed study was a revision and redescription of the extinct California Turkey, Meleagris californica, coauthored with Dr. Bochenski. Other families of birds are also being prepared for detailed revisionary studies.
kcampbell@nhm.org

Dr. John M. Harris
Chief Curator, Page Museum
jharris@nhm.org

 

RESEARCH ASSOCIATES

Dr. Wendy Binder
Associate Professor, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

My first work with the Rancho La Brea collections was when I was a graduate student at UCLA. My research focuses mainly on carnivore functional morphology. Recent projects with my undergraduates Shea Franklin, J'aime Moehlman, Derek Hondo, Natalie Poulter and Jaime Bittner include dire wolf and sabertoothed cat post-cranial measurements.

Dr. Larisa R. G. DeSantis
Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

Recent and current research is aimed at clarifying the dietary behavior of the carnivores from Rancho La Brea to evaluate potential extinction hypotheses.  To date we have focused on using 3D dental microwear to evaluate the degree of hard object feeding in cats and bears.
http://www.vanderbilt.edu/ees/people/faculty/LarisaDeSantis.php

Dr. Benjamin T. Fuller
University of California, Irvine Department of Earth System Science Keck-CCAMS Group, Irvine, CA 

Our recent research is focused on the development of methods for asphalt removal from bone collagen for radiocarbon dating and stable isotope ratio analysis of Pleistocene fauna at Rancho La Brea. Directly linking radiocarbon ages with isotopic results permits the reconstruction of diet and ecology of the species and will help determine if they were influenced by changing climatic conditions over the past 50,000 years. New specimens from a single deposit from Project 23 are currently being examined.

Dr. Greg McDonald
Senior Curator of Natural History, National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado

My research focus at Rancho La Brea is on the giant ground sloths and trying to understand their paleoecology.  I am also interested in the taphonomy of asphalt deposits and how Rancho La Brea compares to other similar deposits which preserve Pleistocene faunas, especially those in South America that also include ground sloths.
Greg_McDonald@nps.gov

Dr. Julie Meachen
Assistant Professor, Department of Anatomy, Des Moines University, Des Moines, IA

My projects at Rancho La Brea include work on limb proportions, sexual dimorphism and functional morphology of the large carnivores, as well as nitrogen isotope sampling.
Julie.Meachen@dmu.edu

Eric Scott
Curator of Paleontology, San Bernardino County Museum, CA.

My main focus at Rancho La Brea is on the Equidae. I am currently working on resolving the taxonomic status of the large La Brea horse and its population structure.
escott@sbcm.sbcounty.gov

Christopher A. Shaw
Research Associate, George C. Page Museum.

My current research includes, western North American vertebrate fossil faunas, saber-toothed cat phylogeny, natural history, and paleopathology. For more than 30 years I have conducted regular collecting expeditions to Sonora, Mexico, in conjunction with an international team of paleontologists from the United States and Mexico.
cshaw@tarpits.org

Dr. John R. Southon
University of California, Irvine Department of Earth System Science Keck-CCAMS Group, Irvine, CA 

Our recent research is focused on the development of methods for asphalt removal from bone collagen for radiocarbon dating and stable isotope ratio analysis of Pleistocene fauna at Rancho La Brea. Directly linking radiocarbon ages with isotopic results permits the reconstruction of diet and ecology of the species and will help determine if they were influenced by changing climatic conditions over the past 50,000 years. New specimens from a single deposit from Project 23 are currently being examined.

Dr. Sue Ware
Research Associate, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Most of my research revolves around paleo-pathologies in large carnivores

H. Todd Wheeler
Research Associate, George C. Page Museum

My primary research field is the machairodont killing bite.  With an academic and professional background in engineering, I focus on the experimental testing and development of hypotheses using a full scale mechanical fixture and suitable prey proxies.  Since there are no extant proxies for saber-toothed cats I also study Panthera atrox and the extant Felidae for perspective.

VISITING RESEARCHERS within the last 5 years

Dr. William Anyonge
Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio
I am examining cranial indicators of jaw biomechanics and endocranial capacity  in Canis dirus and  Canis latrans found at Rancho La Brea I am also gathering data on cross-sectional geometric properties of limb bones of Panthera atrox and Smilodon for studies on locomotor behavior.

Mairin Balisi
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, CA

My Master's research focused on resource partitioning among the Late Pleistocene carnivorans of Rancho La Brea, using analysis of dental microwear. I graduated from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Currently I am pursuing my doctorate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. Caitlin Brown and I are working with Chris Shaw at Rancho La Brea examining the Smilodon fatalis and Canis dirus pathology collection.
http://www.eeb.ucla.edu/grad_students.php#

Dr. Jean-Paul Baquiran
Formerly Department of Environmental Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA

My research has focused on the metagenomics for identification of novel petroleum hydrocarbon degrading enzymes in natural asphalt seeps from the Rancho La Brea.

Caitlin Brown
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, CA

I graduated from the University of Notre Dame and am currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. My thesis documents evidence of overpopulation preserved in modern herbivore skeletal elements- specifically features in the teeth and jaw caused by starvation. I hope to use the frequency of these features in extinct herbivores to derive relative population densities in the Pleistocene. In addition, Mairin Balisi and I are working with Chris Shaw at Rancho La Brea examining the Smilodon fatalis and Canis dirus pathology collection.
http://www.eeb.ucla.edu/grad_students.php#

Abigail Curtis
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, CA

Cranio-dental shape evolution in Pleistocene canids from Rancho La Brea.
http://www.eeb.ucla.edu/grad_students.php#

Dr. Lambert A. Doezema 
Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA
Research interests at the La Brea Tar Pits involve quantifying the amount of methane, ethane, propane, and other gases given off by the tar seeps.  The goal is to better understand the importance of geologic seepage in the global and local budgets of these hydrocarbon gases. 

Dr. Melanie Fillios
Australian Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis, University of Sydney, Australia.

The broad aim of my research is to better understand two significant types of taphonomic marks; tooth marks and pitwear. I make silicone molds of the marks on the bones to produce positive casts which I examine using a SEM. It is hoped that these results may be used in a comparative study of bone surface modification at the Pleistocene megafaunal site, Cuddie Springs, New South Wales, Australia.
http://sydney.edu.au/acmm/about/staff/fillios.shtml

Blanca Garcia
Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain
The principal aim of my research titled, “Influence of global climatic changes in the structure of predator-prey relationships in mammalian communities of the Iberian Neogene” is to determine how the environment affects the community structure of mammals on a global scale.

Dr. Adam Hartstone-Rose
Associate Professor of Cell Biology & Anatomy, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia, SC

My current research investigates subtle variation in the carcass processing abilities of the Rancho La Brea carnivore guild to the variation seen in modern carnivorans and the fossil carnivorans of South Africa.  By measuring, photographing and taking molds of the teeth we will examine the two aspects of dietary dental adaptations - radius-of-curvature and intercuspid notches.

Anna Holden
Richard Gilder Graduate School, American Museum of Natural History, New York

We are updating the current status and distribution of the extensive insect collection at Rancho la Brea. Most of these insect species are still living today though not necessarily in southern California. They increase our understanding of the diversity of life in prehistoric Los Angeles and provide crucial information about the regional climate thousands of years ago. New findings from Project 23 continuously add to the species list and enhance our understanding of local paleoecology. Recent studies include insect trace fossils in bone and wood, exquisite preservation of leafcutter bee nests and pupae, identification of previously undescribed plant galls and new methods to extract asphalt from insects for radiocarbon dating.

Dr. Chris Hubbard
Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University, IL
Recently we have been doing shape analysis of the pelvic structures in extant felids and using these data to compare to extinct species. This involves both linear shape analysis as well as geometric shape analysis using Procrustes transformation.

Alex Hubbe
Departamento de Genética e Biologia Evolutiva, Instituto de Biociências -Universidade de São Paulo, BZ

Based on measurements of adult extinct and extant Xenarthran skulls and rooted in quantitative genetics, the objective of my PhD project is to better understand some processes that might be related to cranial morphological evolution within Xenarthra lineages.

Lindsey Koper
Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University, IL

My research has focused on the forelimb anatomy of Canis dirus

Meena Madan
School of Earth Sceinces, University of Bristol, England

I am currently working on my MSc. thesis project on the "Evolutionary Anatomy and Function of Owls". I am comparing the osteological features found in extinct owls from Rancho La Brea with those of extant species.

Dr. Joan Madurell-Malapeira
Postdoctoral researcher, Institut Català de Paleontologia M. Crusafont, Sabadell, Spain.

My current research investigates the anatomical differences between the Old and New World Pleistocene Felidae, especially focused on the American species Lynx rufus, Panthera augusta, Puma concolor and Panthera atrox as compared with their relatives/putative ancestors Lynx issiodorensis, Panthera gombaszoegensis, Puma pardoides and Panthera fossilis. 

Dr. Virginia Naples
Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University, IL

My primary interests in Rancho La Brea are in the big cats and the sloths but have also used the collections to help build an image database for my students.

Dr. Joshua Samuels
Chief of Paleontology at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, OR.

My research is focused on body size in rodents which is correlated with most ecological and physiological characteristics of animals.
Joshua_Samuels@nps.gov

Dr. Blaine Schubert
Department of Geosciences, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN.

My research interests at Rancho La Brea include microwear on carnivore teeth and Arctodus cranial morphology
http://faculty.etsu.edu/schubert/

Scott Sunell
Department of Anthropology, University of California Los Angeles, CA 

My research is focused on small-scale stone tool manufacture by the Chumash living on Santa Cruz Island here in California. One of the potential uses for these tools was boat manufacture, based on the presence of a marsh and appropriate toolstone near the sites I have excavated. Reed balsa boats, a foundational tool of Chumash subsistence, were produced by lashing together stalks of harvested tule reeds into bundles, combining three or more bundles into a canoe-like shape, and sealing the exterior of the balsa with asphaltum. In order to identify archaeological proxies for this activity, and to understand the process of making the boats, I built a six-foot scale model of a tule reed balsa using replicated stone tools and asphaltum provided by the Page Museum. My analysis of the results is ongoing, but the project itself produced significant insights into the nature of Chumash technology and subsistence practices.

Dr. Joy Ward
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KN.

My research interests focus on the evolutionary responses of plants to changing carbon dioxide over geologic time scales.
www2.ku.edu/~eeb/faculty/ward.sh

 

If you have visited the collections at Rancho La Brea in the past 5 years and would like to mention your research on this page, please email the Collections Manager

Birds

Click here for the list of bird species from Rancho La Brea

Invertebrates

Click here for the list of invertebrate species from Rancho La Brea

Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles

Click here for the list of fish, amphibian and reptile species from Rancho La Brea