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The mammoths and saber-toothed cats may be the crowd pleasers at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, but it’s often the little guys that steer paleontologists to the biggest discoveries at the world-famous excavation site, ya dig?
In fact, scientists at the county museum are primed to reveal and soon publish some of their latest findings related to “microfossils” – further proof that the museum is more than a display of ancient artifacts, assistant curator Regan Dunn said.
“The mind goes wild with ideas on what would make really cool experiences for the public, just to help them understand that we’re not just a museum of old dusty bones,” she added. “We do research here. Our collection of old dusty bones and old dusty plants, they really have a major importance on our understanding of past events and the future. We have researchers here on site that are doing that work all the time. We have researchers coming from all over the world to study these fossils, because they are so unique.”
Many people do not recognize the importance of analyzing plant fossils and listening to the stories that they are trying to tell. The majority of those stories have headlines about climate change, Dunn said.
She is particularly interested in vegetation changes, their patterns and how they relate to climate changes. Alterations in the vegetation are often spurred by a change in the atmosphere, such as a “big burp of carbon dioxide, for instance, like what’s happening now,” Dunn said.
“So, the plants are the first things that experience the change to the atmospheric chemistry, because plants are really the interface between the atmosphere and life on Earth,” she added. “It’s really important to understand what happens to the plants because everything else depends on the plants.”
At the end of the Pleistocene, or Ice Age, temperatures rose and impacted plant life, which led to changes in mammal communities and, inevitably, the extinction of “megafauna,” Dunn said. The end of that time period was also punctuated by droughts and fires, “all those things we see today,” she said.
“It’s extremely relevant to the problems that California is facing today and in the future. And so, understanding how this all went down in the past gives us a unique view on how the future might go, but also how to try to mitigate those circumstances as well.”
There is no better place to do that than at Dunn’s office. It provides a glimpse into the beginning of the end of that era, which saw 75% of the world’s large-body animals go extinct, the assistant curator said.
“That’s something that the Tar Pits documents really well, probably better than any place on Earth,” Dunn said, adding that the timing of the extinction event coincided with the arrival of humans in North America. “We can capture those changes right here. It makes it a really unique site to be able to put all the pieces together.”
Those pieces will form an intact puzzle in the form of exhibits when all is said and done.
“One of our goals for getting this work done and really trying to understand the whole story here, of the fossil ecosystem, is so that we have a really compelling, interesting story for future exhibits,” Dunn said.
She added that a lot of research has been completed since the museum opened in 1977. While the museum’s exhibits have undergone some “refreshing” through the years, many have remained almost the same, Dunn said.
“It’s almost like a time capsule into the 1970s. …We have a lot of new information to present to the public.”
Although climate change is their primary focus now, paleontologists at the museum literally pull new ideas out of the ground every day. Dunn said there are “millions of projects” that the museum has hardly touched. Furthermore, research conducted at the site just leads to more and more questions.
“We don’t have all the answers, you know? Just endless questions and endless possibilities.”
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