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Wooly mammoth found in La Brea Tar Pits

February 18, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Scientists have revealed a major paleontological discovery near the La Brea Tar Pits. They found a huge cache of fossils from the last ice age, among them the nearly intact skeleton of a mammoth. Workers uncovered the fossils while excavating an underground garage next to the tar pits back in 2006. For more than a century, the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits have yielded up a scientific treasure trove of bones, teeth and fossils of prehistoric animals that long ago vanished in the ooze. But nothing like the discovery made by contractors digging a hole for an underground parking structure at the next-door L.A. County Museum of Art.

Understandably the contractors wanted to get finished with their parking project, so the scientists of the George C. Page Museum dug down and boxed up the earth from the excavation so the ancient bones inside could be collected and studied.

"What we're looking at here is, right here, a piece of turtle shell," said Ryan Long, Page Museum excavator.

In addition to the turtles, the find includes tiny fossilized and insects, bones of long-extinct saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, squirrels and birds. But the big discovery is a fully intact wooly mammoth, tusks and all.

"The tusks were just amazing because that is something new for us," said Shelly Cox, Page Museum laboratory director.

Paleontologists are busy cleaning up the mammoth, a male with broken ribs, who was in his late 40s when he sank into the tar pits and died. That was somewhere between 38,000 and 42,000 years ago. They've named him "Zed."

"For us it's really exciting because we have never found the associated bones," said Cox. "We never found the bones of one individual before."

Outside the museum, excavators and volunteers are working from the top down in the 16 huge crates, slowly chipping away at the oily dirt around the bones, marveling at what they found.

"Every day, every single day, you're finding something new that potentially hasn't been found before," said museum excavator Andrea Thomer.

Museum officials say it'll take years before they uncover everything now encased in the crates, but all the bones, they say, will easily double the size of the museum's collection and help scientists understand what L.A. was like during the last ice age.