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Volunteers get their hands dirty — and like it — at La Brea Tar Pits

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Every Thursday morning, Judith Sydner-Gordon puts on the same simple uniform: khaki cargo pants and an electric orange T-shirt with a saber-toothed cat emblazoned across the front. Recently, she added an accessory, a miniature canine skull that dangles from a silver chain around her neck.

"Wolfie," she calls him, after the dire wolf specimen she worked on last year.

Sydner-Gordon, a retired elementary school teacher, has spent five years picking through the remains of animals that died sometime during the last Ice Age. She's one of about 35 volunteers who dedicate one day every week to the largest urban excavation project in the world: the bony quarry of the La Brea Tar Pits.

On this empty weekday morning, the cries of a school tour float across La Brea's immaculately manicured grounds. A few runners stop to stretch under the shade of leafy jacarandas while traffic roars down Wilshire, hurtling past eons of history.

Sydner-Gordon, lean and elegant, perches on an army-green cushion inside a massive wooden crate. Its walls enclose a small mountain of solid rock — a fossil-ridden hunk hewn from the ground to make room for the parking garage at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She leans close to the tacky asphalt, expertly wielding a dental pick to disentangle a dainty bird bone from a frozen jumble of femurs, vertebrae and scapulas.

"We are the first humans to see this stuff after all these thousands of years," she says.

Volunteers like Sydner-Gordon are an invaluable asset to the small staff operating out of the Page Museum, which houses and displays La Brea's treasures. With their donated labor, the team has chiseled and scratched through nearly 6 feet of rock that once towered above the pitted surface of Box 14, where Sydner-Gordon now works.

Reaching down to touch the stone, she says, "To have this here — literally, at your fingertips — is just amazing."

::

Central Los Angeles may seem an odd location for the largest collection of Ice Age fossils found anywhere on Earth. But the bitumen that ensnared hapless creatures and preserved their bones originated in a familiar place: the oil fields that lie beneath much of Southern California and fueled its early economic growth.

For tens of thousands of years, tar has percolated up to the surface from deep underground, pooling in ponds of lethal sludge. Giant ground sloths, American camels, wily coyotes — none escaped its grasp. Even mice, lizards and bees fell prey to the ooze, along with the leaves and yard waste of a lost landscape.

That, it turns out, is the morbid beauty of the tar.

"It's a library of the Ice Age," says Luis Chiappe, vice president of research and collections at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, which oversees the Page Museum. The tar pits contain everything scientists need to reconstruct a vivid picture of a vanished ecosystem, and to understand how it responded to the climate changes of the last glacial period.

The first fossil (a gargantuan canine from a saber-toothed cat) was identified in 1875, and excavations began in earnest in 1913. After 100 years of digging, scientists' understanding and the museum's collection continue to grow.

At the moment, the volunteers are working through 23 new fossil deposits unearthed during the LACMA project, each one now housed in its own crate. Guided by trained paleontologists, they plan to go through every one, in addition to the vat of Pit 91, an active seep where scientists have worked on and off since 1969 (but only in summer, when the tar flows).

So far, they've extracted almost 4 million fossils — from 10-foot mammoth tusks to iridescent beetle wings. They have hardly scratched the surface.

"You can't think in terms of finishing," says Shelley Cox, who coordinates the ranks of volunteers. "It's about progress."

Cox started as a volunteer herself nearly 40 years ago, before the Page Museum even existed. Petite and wiry, wearing a turtleneck under her obligatory orange shirt, she thrived despite being "unmathematical," she says.

Over the course of her career, Cox has shepherded more than 4,000 volunteers through the tar pits. She has seen all kinds come and go, including a 16-year-old boy who went on to become a paleontologist and a 92-year-old butcher who just recently called it quits. Both worked at the tar pits for over 30 years.

With about 40 applications each year, she gets to be choosy. Only 25% make the cut, although she tries to accommodate as many students during the summer as she can.

Cox knows what traits make a good fit for the job: patience, willingness to learn and, most important, respect for the fossils.

"If a fossil was in the ground for 35,000 years," she jokes, "we don't have to do anything today."

::

In the cool calm of the Page Museum's glass-walled laboratory, volunteer Jack Schwellenbach holds up a saber-toothed cat skull burnished walnut-brown by the tar.

"We call him Cletus because he seems to be dentally challenged," Schwellenbach says. Cletus has a craggy, gap-toothed grin — one of his sabers has splintered in two, and he's lost the other altogether — which explains his nickname, after a hillbilly character on "The Simpsons."

When Schwellenbach first took the case, Cletus' skull lay hidden beneath a gritty veneer of tar. Only after painstaking months of soaking, dabbing and brushing did the smooth bone emerge. And that was just the beginning.

"I started this in January, and I have gone this far," says Schwellenbach, pinching 2 inches of air between his fingers. He's referring to a glass jar half-full of what looks like gray-black sand that he must work through one tablespoon at a time. In fact, the vessel contains innumerable fragments of bone and wood and insect parts that Schwellenbach fished from the cavities of Cletus' skull as he cleaned it.

He now passes his mornings peering through a microscope, identifying these shards of ancient detritus and sifting them into piles with a paintbrush.

"This is a yearlong project for me," says Schwellenbach, a trim 67-year-old who retired from building houses seven years ago and has volunteered at La Brea ever since. "Putting together the skull will probably be another six months after that."

Dedication is expected from La Brea's volunteers, who make a minimum 12-month commitment when they enlist. But in return, the staff grants volunteers almost complete control over projects like Cletus.

Of course, Cox always double-checks their work. Surveying the efforts of another volunteer, she ticks off what she finds: "dermal scute of a lizard, a cute little snake vertebra, juniper seed pod." She sends one chunk flying to the edge of the microscope's stage: "That one is just a dirt clod."

The task may be tedious, but Schwellenbach says even sorting through his jar is fun: "There's always something new in the microfossils that we've never seen before."

::

During working hours, the lab echoes with friendly chatter, a sign of the deep camaraderie that binds this diverse bunch. The Thursday crew includes a retired buyer who worked in aerospace, a middle-aged actress and an anthropology student home from New York University for the summer.

Then there is Dixie Swift, who used to run a cultural center in Long Beach and has been a volunteer for four years. She simply loves the beauty of bones. (She even has a pelican skeleton suspended above her dinner table.)

"I tell everybody this is my free master's class," the 79-year-old says. "At my age, I'm not interested in going to the extent of being a scientist, but I'm always learning. It gives me food for thought."

Like the other volunteers, she says she feels privileged to participate in a project that began over a century ago right in her own backyard.

"I knew about this place; I had come and visited," Swift says. "But I think it gets lost that this is an active research center."

Swift is sitting in the lab's break room, an alcove surrounded by shelves stacked high with storage boxes and hundreds of issues of National Geographic. She takes a sip of coffee and scans the half-assembled jigsaw puzzle on the table before her.

"For me, it was a gift," Swift says.

She slips a final piece in place, and then returns to work.

julia.rosen@latimes.com

Twitter: @ScienceJulia

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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