Did you realize you can take a trip back in time to the Ice Age in the heart of one of America’s largest modern cities? It’s true! What are we talking about? The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, of course!

The urban heart of Los Angeles is the site of a fascinating scientific treasure. Within Hancock Park lie the La Brea Tar Pits. The tar pits are areas where tar — brea in Spanish — has seeped up from under the ground for 40,000 years or more.

The tar in the pits consists of heavy oil called asphaltum. Oil fields underlie much of the ground in the area, and oil seeps to the surface and collects in pools at several different areas.

Big pools of oil don’t sound all that exciting. So what’s so special about the La Brea Tar Pits? It’s actually what can be found within the tar pits that has amazed scientists for many years.

The tar in the pits gets very thick. Sometimes it doesn’t even look like tar, because it gets covered with dust, leaves and water. Over the years, many animals have been fooled into thinking they’re on solid ground when, in reality, they end up getting stuck in tar.

Over hundreds and thousands of years, animals trapped in the tar have died and sunk into the tar. The tar does a fabulous job of preserving the bones of these animals. The tar also preserves all sorts of other fossils, including plants, insects and seeds.

The tar pits were initially used as a source of asphalt by early settlers in the area. Eventually, bones were found and scientists began to search the area for fossilized evidence of the area’s history.

Since the early 1900s, scientists have excavated over 100 pits to search for the bones of large mammals that lived long, long ago. The oldest fossils found have been dated to about 38,000 years ago.

So what animals roamed the Los Angeles area tens of thousands of years ago? Several different species have become associated with the La Brea Tar Pits because of fossilized remains found at the site, including saber-toothed cats, mammoths, wolves, bears, ground sloths, bison and horses.

The fossils that have been found in the tar pits can be seen at the George C. Page Museum in Hancock Park. Because of the valuable fossils recovered so far, the La Brea Tar Pits were named a registered National Natural Landmark.

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    • Oh no, Wonder Friend ER, we’re sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy our Wonder video today. It’s okay to be scared– those prehistoric creatures are quite large! We think you’re a great Wonder Friend for commenting today! :)

  1. I liked today’s wonder of the day the video was good. I just started getting on wonderopolis at my school and I’m liking this.

    • Great news, Kamron! We are happy to hear that you enjoyed watching the video about La Brea Tar Pits today! We are glad that you and your classmates are visiting Wonderopolis– and having a great time, too! Thanks for being a SUPER Wonder Friend! :)

    • WOHOO, thanks for sharing your comment, Bryleigh! We Wonder if you had heard of La Brea Tar Pits before WONDERing with us!? It’s pretty cool to imagine all the prehistoric creatures that once roamed the area! :)

    • Hey there, Keny, we are glad you commented today! We’re sorry to hear that the video today was scary– some other Wonder Friends have said the same thing. It’s okay to be scared– those mechanical dinosaurs are very, very large! We’re proud of you, Keny! Keep up the great work! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your comment, Nebula! We are glad that you’re WONDERing with us today, and we hope that you weren’t too scared! It’s okay to be scared– those dinosaurs looked very, very large in the video! We’re happy you’re here today! :)

  2. Hi, I just got pointed to your website by another teacher….this is awesome! We are studying “An Ancient Land” at the moment and these videos are perfect. I am putting a link to your site on my class wiki.

    Keep it coming.
    Ms H

    • Hi there, Ms. H! We’re so glad you are here today– it’s so much fun to meet new Wonder Friends like you and your students! We hope to be a resource in your class!

      Thanks for sharing the Wonder on your classroom page– it’s great to have you here! :)

    • Thanks for sharing your very important comment, Elsa! We saw that a lot of other Wonder Friends found the video a little scary to watch, too! We hope you learned something new… and remember, it’s okay if you felt a little bit scared! Those dinosaurs were pretty huge! :)

    • Thanks so much for sharing your comment, Josephine! We are SO happy that you are enjoying your time at Wonderopolis! We love meeting great Wonder Friends like you! :)

  3. Way to go wonder! We just started a prehistoric unit. Perfect timing!

    J.C. wants to know more! How in the world do the scientists get anything out of the tar without sinking themselves? We are thinking this is a pretty great wonder!

    Kaden is curious about the bubbles. Thanks for helping us wonder!

    • WOW, we couldn’t have planned it better! We are excited that our Wonder Friends in Mrs. Ski’s PM class are putting on their scientific thinking caps today!
      We bet the scientists who work at La Brea Tar Pits have special devices to help them “dig” up the remaining fossils. We bet it would be very difficult to find fossils there without the help of technology!

      Thanks for sharing your own Wonders, too! We bet you’ll enjoy this Wonder that relates to Kaden’s curiosity…

      Wonder #57– Why Do Bubbles Float? http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-do-bubbles-float/ :)

  4. Hi I’m in Mrs. Caplin’s class. Over Christmas Break my family and I went to California and we visited the La Brea Tar pits. You can still see the tar bubbling up, one question how does the the oil become tar? Do the scientists get in the tar or do they study hardened tar? This was a interesting Wonder.

    • Hi there, Maddy11! We are so glad to hear that you and your family visited La Brea Tar Pits over Christmas break! WOW! What an adventure! We’re glad that you shared your comment with us. Perhaps you can continue to Wonder about La Brea Tar Pits on your own! :)

  5. Hi! I’m in Mrs. Caplin’s class. This wonder was fascinating! I especially liked the video about the saber tooth tiger and the mammoth. How did the scientists know that really happened? Did they find he tiger and the mammoth together? Also, wouldn’t the tar slowly break down the animals that got caught? This is one of my favorite wonders.

    • Hey there, MookietheCat, welcome back to Wonderopolis! We’re so happy that this Wonder has you thinking outside the box! That tar helped preserve the bones and fossils of animals from more than 40,000 years ago! We are glad we can Wonder about cool museums and sites that help us Wonder about history! :)

    • Hey Zack, thanks for visiting us and sharing your comment! We Wonder if you have been able to visit the La Brea Tar Pits? Or perhaps you’ve checked out some dinosaur fossils at a science museum? We’re glad to know that you’ve been using your awesome imagination! :)

  6. Really cool video!
    I love Wonderopolis!!!! Your videos are so cool! I’ve heard of the La Bera Tar Pits. It’s probably the stickiest tar ever!

    • Mteam132, we are so glad you have enjoyed this prehistoric Wonder! The La Brea Tar Pits is an amazing place to Wonder, we are glad you’ve heard of it! We have fun imagining dinosaurs roaming the Earth today– what a different life we would lead! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Where are the La Brea Tar Pits?
  • What’s so special about the La Brea Tar Pits?
  • What kinds of fossils have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits?

Wonder Gallery

Tar Pit_shutterstock_47934109Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Want to get a closer look at what all there is to see at the La Brea Tar Pits site? Jump online to watch a sneak-peek video from the location’s official website.

The official website also offers some other interesting interactive features you can check out with a friend or family member:

Still Wondering

Watch National Geographic Education’s Sabertooth video to learn about how data collected from the La Brea Tar Pits helps scientists piece together the natural history of the area, including the history of the sabertooth cat.

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