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La Brea Tar Pit Specimens

La Brea Tar Pit Specimens

The return of the La Brea Tar Pits! We are excited to share this Second Edition specimen once more, including rare Hydrophilus and showcase fossils! 

Above: The front of the Specimen Card for the Tar Pit Specimen. (Source:  Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits, Robert Bruce Horsfall, 1913)

The La Brea Tar Pits are among the most well-known petroleum seeps in the world. Over millennia, such seeps can become lake-like formations and trap unwary wildlife. Excavated animal remains at La Brea comprise nearly 700 different species, some dating back 40,000 years to the Late Pleistocene.


Above: A close-up view of the 6" Showcase Specimen featuring fossils of a disarticulated desert cottontail skeleton, fox metatarsal, and assorted bird bones.

The specimens on this page come from mined sections of the petroleum seeps, gathered decades ago:

  • La Brea Tar Pit Specimen - Crafted here at Mini Museum, this resin-infused specimen was created using material from a selection of mined La Brea Tar Pit material which contained the remains of coyotes, dung beetles, rabbits, and even a bald eagle. The piece is enclosed in an acrylic specimen jar and ships in one of our small, classic riker cases. A small specimen card is included, which also serves as the certificate of authenticity.
  • Hydrophilus Specimens - Individually priced, these large fragments of tar pit material include visible remains of scavenger water beetles. They come from a mid-20th century collection and are rarely seen these days. So, once they are gone, they are unlikely to return, though we will certainly keep looking because they are amazing. These specimens are carefully wrapped and shipped in sturdy cartons. They will include a small specimen card, which also serves as the certificate of authenticity.  The noted size of the specimen is based on the overall length of the material, not any individual beetle within.
  • Showcase Specimens - These large, unique fragments of tar pit material include individual specimens as identified in the drop-down description and images. The identified specimens are surface only, meaning there are likely more unique pieces inside. These specimens are carefully wrapped and shipped in sturdy cartons. They will include individual certificates of authenticity. The size of the specimen is based on the overall length of the material, not any individual fossil within.

Please Note: All of these specimens are products of petroleum seeps, as such, they will be oily and dirty. They will also smell faintly of charcoal or tar. The rough material crumbles easily, and even the resin-stabilized pieces will exhibit some oiliness.

Handling Precautions: We recommend handling these specimens with gloves. We have taken great pains to carefully wrap the larger specimens for transport. It is possible though that the rough material may crumble a bit in transit. This is completely normal, but you should be careful when opening. Definitely avoid white shag carpet.

Above: The La Brea Tar Pit Specimen displayed with additional tar pit material.

More about Petroleum Seeps and La Brea

"We weren’t looking for stuff living in it." ~ John Harris, Paleontologist and Chief Curator at the Page Museum

Above: Modern Day Petroleum Seep. Care for a swim?

Dirt, leaves, or even water can cover the seep, turning the surface into a sticky trap. Once caught in the viscous tar, the animals die, though perhaps not without attracting other animals who prey on the remains and often become trapped as well.

Tar pits, also known as petroleum seeps, are formed by the hydrocarbons stored in deep oil and gas reservoirs leaking out of folded layers of sedimentary rock and bubbling upwards. This tar can squeeze through faults in the stone or in particularly porous rocks, rising to the surface and becoming a thick, sticky asphalt. Over many thousands of years, seeps can grow into large lakes, widening and pooling into deep areas of tar.

The remains from the La Brea Tar Pits speak to an ancient cycle of life and death. Yet, there are always surprises in science, and in 2007 scientists discovered living microbial communities deep within the hardened layers of tar. This unexpected find is leading to new ways of thinking about life here on Earth and elsewhere.

Above: Close-up image of the 1.95" Hydrophilus (scavenger water beetle) Specimen.

After the animal is consumed by the pit, its remains are surrounded with asphalt which protects them from weathering and decomposition. This allows for excellent preservation and fossilization, which often appears with a dark brown tint from the surrounding tar.

Due to the nature of the animal’s entrapment, clusters of fossils from many creatures of different species can often be found together. Ordinarily, predators will be found first, with the prey they chased below them. Common species include smilodons, dire wolves, coyotes, bison, ground sloths, as well as birds, insects, and reptiles.

Further Reading

VanValkenburgh, Blaire, and Fritz Hertel. "Tough times at La Brea: tooth breakage in large carnivores of the Late Pleistocene." Science 261.5120 (1993): 456-459.

Kim, Jong-Shik, and David E. Crowley. "Microbial diversity in natural asphalts of the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits." Applied and environmental microbiology 73.14 (2007): 4579-4591.

Gold, David A., et al. "Attempted DNA extraction from a Rancho La Brea Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi): prospects for ancient DNA from asphalt deposits." Ecology and Evolution 4.4 (2014): 329-336.

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