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La Brea Tarpits (Marissa Staller)

Reviewed by: Marissa Staller, 7th & 8th grade Science Teacher, LAUSD

5801 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036, GPS Coordinates: (+34° 3' 51.79", -118° 21' 18.72")

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The Rancho La Brea Tar Pits (commonly referred shortened to the La Brea Tar Pits) are a cluster of tar pits in the urban heart of Los Angeles. In this area, tar (brea in Spanish) has been seeping up from the ground for tens of thousands of years. Often, the asphalt would form a deposit thick enough to trap animals, and the surface would be covered with layers of water, dust, and leaves. Animals would wander in to drink, become trapped, and die. Predators would also enter to eat the trapped animals and become stuck.  The animals were then preserved as bones.  The La Brea Tar Pits have become famous as one of the most famous fossil areas in the world. 

Fossils of prehistoric species found at the La Brea Tar Pits include mammoths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, ground sloths, and saber-toothed cats. Only one human has ever been found, a partial skeleton of a woman who lived approximately 10,000 years ago.  Other fossils, including fossilized insects and plants, and even pollen grains, are also valued. These fossils help define a picture of what is thought to have been a cooler, moister climate in the Los Angeles basin during the glacial age.

On site at the La Brea Tar Pits lies the George C. Page Museum, a museum and research station dedicated to researching the tar pits and displaying specimens from the animals that have died there.  In addition to bone specimens, the museum contains short films describing the history of the area and the pits, an old animatronic sloth and sabertooth exhibit, an outdoor atrium, and an interactive "experience how difficult it is to pull something out of the tar" exhibit.  One of the most interesting features at the museum, especially for students, is windows through which visitors can watch bones being cleaned and repaired.

Overall, the La Brea Tar Pits is a famous and easily accessible paleontological site because it is in a large city, with dramatic exhibits well presented at the George C. Page Museum.  

The La Brea Tarpits and Page museum are currently managed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the research and preservation of Los Angeles's natural and cultural history.

  • A life science teacher and class would benefit by a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum because the exhibits include excellent fossil specimens of species that once roamed Los Angeles, as well as interesting preservations of the food chain where predators got stuck chasing their prey into the tar pits.  
  • An environmental science teacher and class would benefit by viewing actual examples fossils of extinct species and by viewing exhibits that help shed some light on speciation, predation, and extinction, as well as on climactic changes of the Southern California region.
  • Earth science teachers and classes would benefit from this field trip by gaining a better understanding of resources in California, like oil and tar, and their relation to California's geology.
  • An archaeology or paleontology class would benefit from seeing a real-life archaeological dig and investigation, and more advanced levels (such as high school or college) may be able to volunteer and get involved in the research.

Science Concepts Addressed
  • General Scientific Topics Addressed:
    • Geology: Natural landscape of California and tar seepage.
    • Fossils: Incredible selection of fossils, recognized for having the largest and most diverse assemblage of extinct Ice Age plants and animals in the world
    • Ice Age: Exhibits that show how the world, particularly California, was during the last Ice Age (between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago)
    • Predation and the Food Chain: Interesting information and samples in the exhibits showing how predators followed their prey into the tar pits, becoming entrapped and dying as well.
    • Extinction: Exhibit’s remains of species such as the Saber-Toothed Cat and the Wooly Mammoth that are extinct and information related to their extinction.
    • Paleontology: Through windows at the Page Museum Laboratory, visitors can watch bones being cleaned and repaired by volunteers and paleontologists.
  • State Standards Addressed:

    •     Life Science (7th Grade)
      • 7.3.3 Students know how independent lines of evidence from geology, fossils, and comparative anatomy provide the bases for the theory of evolution. 
      • 7.3.4 Students know how to construct a simple branching diagram to classify living groups of organisms by shared derived characteristics and how to expand the diagram to include fossil organisms. 
      • 7.3.5 Students know that extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient for its survival. 
      • 7.4.a. Students know Earth processes today are similar to those that occurred in the past and slow geologic processes have large cumulative effects over long periods of time.
      • 7.4.e. Students know fossils provide evidence of how life and environmental conditions have changed. 

      Study Guide:

      ***See attachment for answer key***

      La Brea Tar Pits Study Guide


      Site Map



      Directions: Based on class lecture and information in the exhibits, define each of the following key vocabulary terms:

      1. Asphalt:



      1. Ice Age:



      1. Mastodon:



      1. Paleontology:



      1. Pleistocene Era:



      1. Tar:


      1. Tar Pit:



      1. Woolly Mammoth:





      Directions: Complete each of the following tasks.

      1. Go to the Lake Pit.


      What do you see?


      What do you smell?


      What do you hear?


      What makes the bubbles?




      1. Go to the Pleistocene Garden.


      Gently rub some sage between your fingers and smell – how would you describe the scent?  These super strong Ice Age survivors can be found around LA.


      Draw some sage leaves here:








      1. Go to the mirror into the collection.


      How many fossils have been found so far?



      1. Go to Project 23.


      What is project 23?


      How did it get its name?


      What does it mean to excavate?


      What has been found so far?



      Directions: Using information found in the exhibits of the Page Museum and on the placards by the main tar pits, answer the following questions:


      1. What are Tar Pits and how do they form?




      1. How were Animals trapped in the Tar Pits?




      1. Name at least 3 types of Carnivores found in the Tar Pits.




      1. Name at least three Herbivores found in the Tar Pits.




      1. How does the sloth avoid predation?




      1. What is the largest member of the feline family found in the Pit?




      1. What ERA is represented at the Gallery?




      1. When did the last Ice Age end?




      1. How has the Climate at La Brea changed since the great Ice Age?




      1. Describe the film on dinosaurs?



      1. Write a paragraph explaining theories about why the animals found in the pits went extinct?




      La Brea Tar PIts

      For additional information:
      Harris, J. M. and Jefferson, G.T. (eds.) 1985. Rancho La Brea: Treasures of the Tar Pits. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

      Marissa Staller,
      Dec 8, 2011, 9:20 AM
      Marissa Staller,
      Dec 8, 2011, 9:20 AM