Columbian mammoth remains, thousands of other fossils found while building LACMA parking structure

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Imagine you’re minding your own business, building a subterranean parking garage, and discover that you have stumbled upon 16 new fossil deposits including a mostly complete adult mammoth skeleton. That’s exactly what happened to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006.

Instead of putting the brakes on the construction, LACMA turned to its next-door neighbor, the Page Museum (located at the site best known as the La Brea Tar Pits) and allowed their paleontologists to work day and night to extract 23 huge tree boxes full of materials that are now deemed Project 23.


Some of those discoveries are now available for the public to see in the Fishbowl lab at the Page Museum; many more are being slowly excavated in and around the museum.

‘Project 23 is showing up some real gems,’ said Aisling Farrell, collections manager of the Page Museum. ‘Not only are we starting to recognize individual animals by their associated skeletons but we are also finding thousands of tiny microfossils that will help fill in the background picture to the Los Angeles landscape 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. We have pint wood that shows bark beetle damage, puparia from blow flies that hatched on the rotting carcasses before they were buried, shrew teeth, lizard scales, snake vertebrae, turtle toes and the list goes on.’

Although evidence that camels and sabertoothed kittens roamed where The Grove now sits boggles the mind, the sight of a Zed, a newly discovered mammoth, and his giant skull drives home the fact that Los Angeles was once quite different than it is today.

‘This Columbian mammoth is the most complete mammoth that we have ever found at La Brea Tar Pits,’ Farrell said about Zed. ‘Along with the skull we also have both tusks, the lower jaws, most of the vertebrae, all the ribs, pelvis, both scapulae, both humeri, a femur and tibia and a number of ankle, wrist and toe bones. This individual had several broken and healed ribs in life along with several fused vertebrae in his lower back.’

Volunteer Dixie Swift (l) and Assistant Lab Supervisor Trevor Valle working on Zed’s skull.

Above is a cast of an adult saber-toothed cat skull. ‘We have found at least 6 saber-toothed kittens all from one deposit, and all from within 1 cubic meter,’ Farrell explained. ‘They are all different ages and all have little sabers in their partial skulls.’ (The saber is the upper canine tooth.) ‘These new finds may help researchers learn more about the growth rates of saber-toothed cat canines.’

Above is a drawer of sabertoothed kitten remains from Project 23, neatly cleaned after being buried in the earth for tens of thousands of years.

Volunteer Maricela Bravo is seen here cleaning a sabertoothed cat (Smilodon fatalis) skull from Project 23. Many volunteers have worked tirelessly to bring these fossils to light, literally.

The dark skull of a camel (Camelops hesternus) from Project 23 in partial preparation (foreground) compared to a modern llama skull (the white one) is shown here.

Pleistocene partial turtle carapace in brown from Project 23, sitting on top of a modern carapace.

A dire wolf (Canis dirus) skeleton watches over the activities in the Fishbowl lab.

Lead excavator Carrie Howard holding part of a juvenile American mastodon femur in Box 14 at Project 23. Howard explained that the femur had broken off before it was escavated.

And finally some examples of sabertoothed kitten radii (one of the lower arm bones) in the foreground, juvenile American mastodon elements, and a juniper tree in the middle and background.

Of the 23 boxes, so far 16,097 specimens have been excavated thanks to over 28,500 hours of activity by staffers and volunteers. Inside the lab nearly 3,000 fossils have been prepared. For a fascinating look at L.A.'s animal past, you might want to step into the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.

But as the mammoth can tell you... watch your step.

-- Tony Pierce

Top photo: The tusk of a Columbian mammoth (his nickname is Zed) from Project 23 in partial preparation in the Fishbowl Lab.

Second photo: A reporter climbs up the side of one of the 23 tree boxes near the Page Museum.

All photos: Tony Pierce / Los Angeles Times