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Published: Wednesday August 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday August 21, 2014 MYT 1:34:22 PM

Donating their time at La Brea Tar Pits

My, what big teeth you have: Volunteer Jack Schwellenbach holding the skull of 'Cletus', a sabre-toothed cat, which he is working on at the fossil lab of the Page Museum in the LaBrea Tar Pits. - Los Angeles Times/MCT photos

My, what big teeth you have: Volunteer Jack Schwellenbach holding the skull of 'Cletus', a sabre-toothed cat, which he is working on at the fossil lab of the Page Museum in the LaBrea Tar Pits. - Los Angeles Times/MCT photos

Volunteers get their hands dirty – and like it – at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits.

Every Thursday morning, Judith Sydner-Gordon puts on the same simple uniform: khaki cargo pants and an electric orange T-shirt with a sabre-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 is one of about 35 volunteers who dedicate one day a 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 Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, hurtling past aeons of history.

Sydner-Gordon perches on an army-green cushion inside a big 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 ... 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 labour, the team has chiselled and scratched through 1.8m 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.”

Volunteer Dixie Swift using a microscope to isolate bone material, plant material, insects and shells from sediment on the fossil of a western pond turtle, inside the fossil lab at the Page Museum. The turtle is believed to be between 10,000 and 40,000 years old.
Volunteer Dixie Swift using a microscope to isolate bone material, plant material, insects and shells from sediment on the fossil of a western pond turtle, inside the fossil lab at the Page Museum. The turtle is believed to be between 10,000 and 40,000 years old.

Bitumen snare

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 fuelled 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.

“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 the evidence 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 sabre-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 project, each one now housed in its own crate. Guided by trained palaeontologists, 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 four million fossils – from 3m 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. She has shepherded more than 4,000 volunteers through the tar pits and seen all kinds come and go, including a 16-year-old boy who went on to become a palaeontologist 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, but she tries to accommodate students during the summer.

Volunteer coordinator Shelley Cox categorising parts of an adult bison, dated 42,000 years ago, in the fossil lab in the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. At left, foreground, is a replica of the lower jaw of a full grown Columbian Mammoth. About 35 volunteers dedicate one day a week to helping at the largest urban excavation project in the world.
Volunteer coordinator Shelley Cox categorising parts of an adult bison, dated 42,000 years ago, in the fossil lab in the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. At left, foreground, is a replica of the lower jaw of a full grown Columbian Mammoth. About 35 volunteers dedicate one day a week to helping at the largest urban excavation project in the world.

Meet Cletus

In the cool calm of the Page Museum’s glass-walled laboratory, volunteer Jack Schwellenbach holds up a sabre-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 sabres has splintered in two, and he’s lost the other altogether – which explains his nickname, after a hillbilly character on The Simpsons.

Schwellenbach, 67, spends his mornings peering through a microscope, identifying shards of ancient detritus and sifting them into piles with a paintbrush.

“This is a year-long project for me,” he says. “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.

A piece of the shell from a western pond turtle, believed to be between 10,000 and 40,000 years old, being cleaned by one of the volunteers.
A piece of the shell from a western pond turtle, believed to be between 10,000 and 40,000 years old, being cleaned by one of the volunteers.

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, 79, who used to run a cultural centre in Long Beach and has been a volunteer for four years. She simply loves the beauty of bones.

“I tell everybody this is my free master’s class,” Swift says. “At my age, I’m not interested in ... 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 centre.” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Science & Technology, Science, palaeontology, La Brea Tar Puts, California, volunteers, fossils, excavation, sabre tooth tiger

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