Friday, June 5, 2009

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.

The largest known deposit of fossils from the last ice age has been found in what might seem to be the unlikeliest of places -- under an old May Co. parking lot in L.A.'s tony Miracle Mile shopping district.

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Researchers from the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits have barely begun extracting the fossils from the sandy, tarry matrix of soil, but they expect the find to double the size of the museum's collection from the period, already the largest in the world.

Among their finds, to be formally announced Wednesday, is the nearly intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth -- named Zed by researchers -- a prize discovery because only bits and pieces of mammoths have previously been found in the tar pits.

But researchers are perhaps even more excited about finding smaller fossils of tree trunks, turtles, snails, clams, millipedes, fish, gophers and even mats of oak leaves. The first excavators at La Brea threw out similar items in their haste to find prized animal bones, and crucial information about the period was lost.

"This gives us the opportunity to get a detailed picture of what life was like 10,000 to 40,000 years ago" in the Los Angeles Basin, said John Harris, chief curator at the Page. The find will make the museum "the major library of life in the Pleistocene ice age," he said.

Because of its need for haste, the team also is pioneering a new technique for extracting the fossils. Most paleontologists spend days to weeks carefully sifting through the soil at the site of a dig. In this case, however, huge chunks of soil from the site have been removed intact and now sit in large wooden crates on the back lot of the Page.

The 23 crates range in size from 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet to 19 feet by 12 feet by 10 feet -- from the size of a desk to that of a small delivery truck -- and are responsible for the excavation's informal name, Project 23.

The site of the old two-story parking garage, formerly used by the now-defunct May Co., is located immediately west and adjacent to the Page in Hancock Park. The Page's sister museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, owned the building and had razed it to construct an underground parking garage that would restore parkland above the structure.

The entire Rancho La Brea area at Hancock Park is a paleontological treasure chest. Petroleum from the once-massive underground oil fields oozed to the surface over the millenniums, forming bogs that trapped and killed unsuspecting animals and then preserved their skeletons. It is now a protected site, although dispensation was granted to build the new garage.
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