By Linda McK. Stewart
Maybe you too were stopped short by the illustrated cover of a New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was captioned, ***italThe Mammoth Cometh.***END
And there he (she?) was, peering out at us through yellowy eyes, nestled in golden retriever-ish shag. A handsome pair of tusks curved gracefully up to frame the furry elephant face. The elephant-like trunk hung abjectly down and there was about the whole portrait an almost winsome expression, a what-am-I-doing-here expression. Well, he (she) might ask, as might we.
For the article, which the cover so eloquently illustrated, dealt with the ongoing efforts of a handful of enthusiasts devoted to what they call “de-extinction.” The term refers to a process by which it is theoretically possible, by tweaking the DNA of prehistoric species, to reincarnate them. The list of possible long-extinct candidates for such tweaking is pretty impressive: the saber tooth tiger, the 8-foot high tortoise, the dire wolf and a 1-ton nocturnal rat, last seen some 2 million years ago and of course the wooly mammoth. And then the recently extinct: the passenger pigeon that once thrived in eastern U.S. not in the millions but in the billions, a beautiful, red-breasted bird that, most unfortunately, was delicious when roasted. And the amphibians that up until almost yesterday croaked out their nocturnal love songs in wetlands all around the globe, including right here in our own backyards.
And should such tweaking efforts yield their hoped-for results, how would we feel, given the possibility of seeing hairy mammoths grazing on the village green? An eloquent answer to that question can be found in Los Angeles at the George C. Page Museum and around the ancient tar pits adjacent to the museum. The grounds of the museum, are beautifully landscaped with flowering shrubs and trees and stroller-friendly walkways that meander across expanses of well-tended lawn. But step off a walkway onto the turf and at once your shoes squish down into black tar that is strenuously resistant to any home-mounted efforts towards removal. Scattered across the grounds of the park are life-size models of prehistoric animals. Welcome to the La Brea Tar Pits.
About 40,000 years ago the Los Angeles Basin was generously dotted with tar pits created by seepage from underground oil deposits. Then, as now, it was sticky stuff and promised a sure if not swift demise for any creature that ventured into it. There are numerous such tar pits around the globe – Venezuela, Texas, Peru, Russia, Poland – but none of these have yielded even a fraction of the fossilized treasures that have been extracted from the La Brea Pits. The scorecard is impressive by any measure: 2,500 saber-toothed tigers along with hundreds of dire wolves (a heavier, larger version of the present-day gray wolf) short-faced bears, giant sloths and mammoths. Prey animals, fleeing predators, would become trapped in the tar whereupon predators would attack them and in turn, also become entrapped. In time the animals would die, sink into the tar and become fossilized. Excavators working the pits have recovered literally thousands of skeletons, some in fragments but many complete down to the tiniest tooth. Amazingly only one human skeleton has been recovered, that of a youthful female.
Unique in its proximity to such a treasure trove of fossils is the George C. Page Museum, opened in 1977. Visitors to the museum are treated to a fascinating collection of fossilized skeletons and graphic displays of the prehistoric creatures from the Pleistocene era that once populated our neighborhoods. The wooly mammoth that is now under consideration for reincarnation, once roamed North America from Alaska to Florida. Its numbers died off not because of natural predators like wolves or saber-toothed cats but because of the arrival of human beings, crossing the ice bridge from Asia some 40,000 years ago. It’s estimated that it took less than 1,000 years for humankind to wipe out dozens of species.
The museum displays are grouped around a glass-enclosed workspace, called the Fishbowl, where seven days a week, paleontologists go about the painstaking business of cleaning and identifying bones freshly removed from the tar pits. More than 65 volunteers, ranging in age between 18 and 90, assist. They receive preliminary training learning about the Pleistocene flora and fauna and the techniques necessary to prepare the fossils. After completing 96 hours in the Fishbowl lab, approved volunteers are invited to roll up their sleeves and dig in the nearby tar pits. For the groups of school children who troop through the Page Museum, nose to the glass, as well of course as for all the other visitors, the Fishbowl provides a priceless close up of the exacting science of paleontology.
A visit to the La Brea tar pits and to the handsome Page Museum inevitably gives rise to the question: Do we really want to bring back to life creatures that went extinct 10,000 years ago?
Given the profusion of pressing social issues of which we are reminded by headlines every day, it does seem like a question well worth asking.
IF YOU GO: For details about the Page Museum, call 323-934-PAGE.