Current Excavations | La Brea Tar Pits and Museum

Current Excavations

Everyday Discoveries

Why, with a collection of more than 3.5 million fossils, do we keep digging? Don't we have enough fossils? Do we really expect to find anything new?


What Is Project 23?

In 2006, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) began work on a new underground parking garage. During the course of construction, 16 new fossil deposits were discovered, including the semi-articulated, largely complete skeleton of an adult mammoth. How could we get out of the way of the bulldozers but save the fossils? We built large wooden boxes around each deposit, 23 in all. The boxes were moved to their present location immediately north of the Pit 91 complex, and excavation began on "Project 23." In addition to the boxes, there were 327 buckets of fossil material recovered from the LACMA salvage site for paleontologists to clean and sort through. It's going to keep us busy for years!

Pit 91: Science in the Heart of L.A.

Pit 91 is the only long-term excavation effort of the La Brea Tar Pits--museum staff has been exploring it for approximately 40 years. Work began in 1915, but back then, the site was not roofed, and it eventually caved it.  In 1969, paleontologists returned to Pit 91 to continue excavating, and in 1976, the viewing station, which allowed visitors to look directly into the pit and watch excavators working, opened. Pit 91 was dug year-round from 1969 to 1980, then ceased. It opened in 1984 for two weeks during the Olympics, and proved so popular that the pit was opened once more for a summer season. Now every summer, the excavators are back!  

Discoveries Made Daily

We find something new every week, if not every day. Not a new species necessarily, but things like a new and uniquely laid out deposit of fossils, or new information on the geology of the deposit. Mini-discoveries like these help color our continually evolving picture of the Pleistocene in Los Angeles. Now, new species are difficult to come by, but with Project 23, we have sheer volume on our side. With the amount of fossiliferous dirt we have to dig through, we'd be surprised if we didn't discover a new type of animal. Research demands more data! Databases demand more data entry! And basic human curiosity demands that we slowly, steadily, someday reach the bottom of our inverted Everest.

What We Found:Uncovering the Ice Age

  • Click to learn more about Naegele's giant jaguar
  • Click to learn more about the Columbian mammoth
  • Click to learn more about millipedes
  • Click to learn more about the Baby Mastodon
  • Click to learn more about the Dire wolf
  • Click to learn more about Shasta ground sloth
  • Click to learn more about the Saber-toothed cat
Click to learn more about Naegele's giant jaguar

That Darn CatNaegele's giant jaguar

Panthera atrox are relatively rare at Rancho La Brea in contrast to smaller carnivores such as the saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis and the dire wolf Canis dirus. Complete individuals of any species are also extremely rare. However, the skeleton of this Panthera atrox nicknamed “Fluffy” is relatively complete. Thus far we have uncovered approximately 40% of this animal excluding the feet. However, there still may be more yet undiscovered at our excavation site. “Fluffy” gives paleontologists new and interesting data on limb proportions of these extinct felines. Continuing research includes taphonomic studies on how the bones were found in the ground.

Tiny bones are rare in the fossil record mostly because they are too small to be seen in the field. At Rancho La Brea however, unusual skeletal elements such as this 1/8 inch ear bone called the incus are recovered in the matrix surrounding larger bones when cleaned in the Fishbowl Lab.

And Don't Miss

Come Inside the La Brea Tar Pits Museum

Step inside to see what happens to the fossils we discover outside! There are exhibits, interactive activities, and the special Excavator Tour starts at the Fossil Lab!

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Outside in Hancock Park

We have been excavating Ice Age fossils in these pits for over 100 years. Come explore the Observation Pit (pictured above), Project 23, and the Pleistocene Garden!

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Ice Age Encounters

Experience a live, multimedia perfomance where we dig into the past to uncover the mysteries of some of the extinct creatures who roamed Ice Age Los Angeles over 10,000 years ago.

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