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Major cache of fossils unearthed in L.A.

A nearly intact mammoth, dubbed Zed, is among the remarkable discoveries near the La Brea Tar Pits. It's the largest known deposit of Pleistocene ice age fossils.

February 18, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Curators collected 34 mammoths in the initial excavations of the La Brea tar pits from 1906 to 1914. "But they were all disarticulated bones, jumbled together," said paleontologist Christopher A. Shaw, collections manager at the Page. Mammoths on display at the museum are assembled from the bones of many animals.

Zed's tusks also are nearly intact -- another rarity since they are made of dentin, which is much more fragile than bones.

Zed's skeleton is now being cleaned in the museum's "fish bowl" preparation room, and the team of paleontologists and volunteers has so far completed only his jawbone and some vertebrae. All researchers know so far is that he stood about 10 feet tall at the hip and was 47 to 49 years old. Mammoths normally lived to about 60, so Zed died prematurely.

Curators have found three broken ribs that were healed before his death. He probably got them from fighting with other male mammoths, "or he was just clumsy as hell," said Shelley M. Cox, who is supervising the cleaning.

The team also has begun digging through the largest crate but has so far excavated only an area about 6 feet by 4 feet and about 2 1/2 feet deep. From that small area, they have so far removed a complete saber-tooth cat skeleton, six dire-wolf skulls and bones from two other saber-tooth cats, a giant ground sloth, and a North American lion. The tar has yielded more than 700 individual plant and animal specimens, 400 of which have been cataloged, Shaw said.

The team doesn't know the ages of the deposits yet. All previous specimens from Hancock Park date from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and there is no reason to suspect these will be any different, but each must be radiocarbon-dated.

Individual fossil deposits in the area generally cover a time span of about 2,000 years, Harris said, and deposits that are just a few feet apart can be separated in time by thousands to tens of thousands of years. "Hopefully, the 16 [new] deposits will have 16 different ages," Shaw said.


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