Metro Construction Has Unearthed Some Impressive Fossils—And Not Where Scientists Expected

They were warned about disturbing the ancient mammoth burial ground

When Metro decided it was time to build a tunnel next to the La Brea Tar Pits, a spot renowned for having a rich collection of prehistoric fossils embedded below the ground, they knew they were likely to come away with a few finds. As progress on the Purple Line’s Fairfax and La Brea stations moved forward this summer, they were not disappointed.

“The most exciting find, by far, is our juvenile Columbian mammoth skull. It is nearly complete, with both of its tusks still in their sockets. It’s a truly beautiful specimen,” Dr. Ashley Leger, Ph.D., Paleontological Field Director with Cogstone Resource Management, Inc., says. “We’ve also been lucky enough to find another mammoth tusk, an arm bone from ‘yesterday’s camel,’ and a mastodon tooth, along with a variety of other fossils.”

Basically, it’s a windfall of old bones down there, with discoveries coming out as fast as the crews can bore through. And that presents challenges for the crews doing the work. Every member of the construction team have been given training as amateur paleontologists, keeping an eye out for anything of significance as they go along. They’re also accompanied at all times by professionals from Cogstone Resource Management who are specifically there to keep their eyes peeled for any ancient remains. If anything is spotted. “Once something is noticed, the crews temporarily divert excavation for us so we can remove the specimens,” Leger notes. 

Fossilized mastodon teeth

Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportaiton Authority and the Skanska Traylor Shea Joint Venture

If they make a find, it gets carefully removed and taken to the La Brea Tar Pits lab space for cleaning and preparation. Eventually, the specimens that are deemed museum-worthy will go on display either at the Tar Pits Museum (if they were recovered in the tar itself) or at the Natural History Museum. If you want to catch a sneak peek, that mammoth skull is currently being worked on in the Tar Pits’ “fishbowl laboratory,” a public viewing station where you can watch the scientists as they get to work on preserving the fossil.

The biggest surprise for the team so far hasn’t been what they’ve found, but where. They expected to find the highest concentration of interesting fossils while working on Fairfax Station, the one you’ll soon be using to go to visit the La Brea Tar Pits, but that actually hasn’t been the case. It’s the work on La Brea Station, actually a mile away from the pits themselves, where the pickings have been the best.

Wherever the discoveries are made, they’re teaching scientists a lot about what Los Angeles was like long before we humans made our mark on the land. “Fossils are the closest thing to a time machine we have,” Leger says. “They show us what was living here before us, gives us an idea of what the vegetation looked like, and a glimpse of the climate of the past.”

RELATED: La Brea Tar Pits Museum Bracing for a Flood of Fossils This Summer