La Brea Tar Pits

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  • Topic: La Brea Tar Pits, Smilodon, Saber-toothed cat
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  • Published : September 17, 2008
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La Brea Tar Pits
The La Brea tar pits have been well-known for over a century. Before the rise of European settlers, local Indian tribes used the tar to caulk canoes and waterproof tents. As the Industrial Revolution took off the early 1900s, the tar pits attracted oil men, as asphaltum is often associated with petroleum. Then,

[w]hen W. W. Orcutt, the original organizer of the geological department of Union Oil of California, reexamined the area in 1901, he discovered "a vast mosaic of white bones" on the surface of a pool of asphalt--the skeleton of a giant ground sloth, a huge armored animal that had been extinct for millions of years. As paleontologists subsequently probed the La Brea tar pits, it became obvious that the heavy asphalt had trapped numerous prehistoric animals and, more important, had then perfectly preserved their skeletons. It was perhaps the richest paleontological find ever made. (Franks and Lambert 1985, p. 3)

In the early 1920s, Los Angeles was just beginning to develop into a major city thanks to its port and the rise of the Hollywood motion picture industry. Thanks to the massive waves of construction, a massive cache of prehistoric animal skeletons was discovered in some asphaltum bogs on Rancho La Brea property soon to be enveloped by an expanding Los Angeles. By the mid-1920s an area of twelve square city blocks, the La Brea Tar Pits (which had been discovered a more than a decade prior), the largest discovered fossil depository in North America, had been set aside as a county park. From it over the years hundreds of skeletons were being recovered under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, established at Exposition Park in 1913. Among the Pleistocene fossils found and put on display: mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, the giant ground sloth and dire wolf, the California lion, weighing over a thousand pounds, the ground stork, the golden eagle (800 of these) and one solitary human, a female named the La Brea Woman.

The Saber-Tooth Tiger
Perhaps the most iconic of these finds is that of the Smilodon, or the North American saber tooth tiger. The great predator likely ended up in the pit due to following prey into the sticky tar — the La Brea lab now holds 166,000 pieces of more than 2200 separate cats. (Kreiner 2000) Now extinct, and with no living ancestors in North America, the saber tooth tiger generated significant interest among paleontologists — why did the tiger evolve such long fangs? The hunting tactic of the tiger required and encouraged long teeth: a computer simulation of Smilodon "moves more like a bear than a cat. He's better equipped to pounce from ambush than he is to run down game" (Kreiner 2000, p. 2) and those saber-like fangs were crucial for not only a quick kill, but to hook into the flesh of the huge beasts upon whom the tiger pounced. Smilodon prey included many other members of the La Brea bestiary. Ancient Los Angeles was "a damper, warmer, more heavily vegetated place where camels, horses, buffalo one-fifth larger than today's version and even mastodons roam." (Kreiner 2000, p. 2) Smilodon vanishes from the fossil record some 3000 years after human beings enter the picture, leading to the possibility that humans either outcompeted the tiger for prey animals or directly wiped out the animal itself. Some scholars suggest that humans may have initially scavenged off Smilodon kills, arguing "that the dental specializations of sabertooths would have precluded them from dismembering carcasses and consuming all the flesh; thus, they would have left behind substantial amounts of protein for scavengers." (Stanford and Bunn 2001, p. 113) These scavengers would include humans, but also other creatures such as jackals, birds, etc. However, this is not the only theory. Stanford and Bunn (2001) go on to note that:

Other evidence concerning sabertooth cat feeding behavior comes from a study of tooth...
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