Carpinteria: An Ooey Gooey Time Capsule

Hey there every peoples!

This post has been a long time coming. I did my research for it over 3 months ago! But school really kept me busy. I am now failing hard my trig and chem classes. Normally the Noonday Demon would use this to torment me, but since i have chosen a different path it hasn’t bugged me that much (though the Demon does have other aspects of my psyche to stay occupied with). Enough time has passed. It’s high time i got around to talking about a very unique fossil sight here on the Central Coast.

Tar pits. Now what did you immediately start thinking of when i said that? No doubt you were thinking about one of the most famous fossils sites in the world, Rancho La Brea. Discovered in the early 20th century, the tar pits have churned out over one million fossils of plants and animals from the late Pleistocene, 10-40 thousand years ago. The tar oozing out of the ground is the remains of crude oil that found it’s way to the surface. This tar was collected in the early 20th century to pave streets and roads (that’s how the fossils were found). Rancho La Brea dominates the discussion about tar; hell now a days it’s hard to talk about the Pleistocene in general without Rancho La Brea finding it’s way into the conversation. It’s status in the world of paleontology is so ingrained that it’s easy to forget that Rancho La Brea is rather limited in it’s information. Obviously it doesn’t speak for the whole Pleistocene epoch, only the final stretch. Nor does it represent animals in north America, only California. In fact, not even California. Rancho La Brea is a snapshot of the Los Angeles Basin 10-40 thousand years ago. Nothing more. In fact, it’s not even the only asphaltum site in California (let alone the world) to produce fossils. So why does it get all the attention and fanfare? True, it is the largest and best preserved tar pits deposit, and one of the largest and best preserved fossil sites in the world. But why dos that somehow make it the champion over everything else? Why is it when a new Pleistocene treasure trove is discovered (like Fairmead Landfill and Snowmass Village), it is always slapped with the description “it could rival the world famous La Brea Tar Pits”? This is like how whenever a new theropod is discovered it’s always being compared to T. rex. It’s just monotonous and adds nothing to the discussion, except maybe commentary in an over-hyped yet completely nonexistent competition. As you all know, I’m about what is outside the mainstream, the unsung tales of the places and animals that get little time (if any at all) in the spotlight. And that’s what I’m here to share with you.

As i mentioned above, Rancho La Brea isn’t the only tar pit site in California with literal skeletons in their closets. California is home to some of the richest oil fields in North America (at least it was at some point), and with that much black stuff in the ground it was bound to pop up in other places. Rancho La Brea is in fact only one of four fossil-bearing tar seeps in California. Two are found in Kern County, relatively close to each other. One lies along California Highweay 58 inthe McKittrick oil field. Today, the rolling hills host dozens of oil rigs, slowly bobbing up and down like a novelty drinking bird. A bronze plaque marks the site where hundreds of ice age fossils were dredged from the sticky black ooze. The other site was found a shorts ways down the valley near the town of Maricopa. Like McKittrick, it produced many fossils of dire wolves, bears, lions, horses, bison, and other creatures. Finally, the last of the fossil tar pits sites actually resides here on the central coast, on the southern end of Santa Barbara County.

In the early 20th century, the demand for asphalt in a rapidly developing California was astronomical. Wherever tar was to be found, it was to be pulled from the earth by any means. Carpinteria was the perfect spot. The city is named after the Spanish word for carpenter. This name alludes to the Chumash and their great wood working skills, specifically in building plank canoes (Tomole in the native tongue). One of the most ubiquitous features of the plank canoe was the material used to to caulk the planks. The Chumash used tar that they found along the beach as a sealant to make the canoes water tight. Not only that, but they used it as an everyday adhesive, for everything from making water bottles to securing arrowheads to making game pieces. They even chewed lumps of asphalt like gum! So it was fairly obvious that Carpinteria was an ideal spot to harvest asphalt. Several large pits were opened, almost resembling quarries. Workers used giant, heated spatula-like shovels to extract the tar from the earthen mass. At one point Carpinteria was home to one of the biggest asphalt mines in the world.

Carpinteria asphalt mine, 1900

As with the other sites, eventually animal bones and plant remains were discovered in the tar. But something was off. Hardly any bones of the legendary and charismatic megafauna were found. Mostly the remains of smaller mammals and birds were turning up. Plant remains were found as well, but not in the quantities found at Rancho La Brea or elsewhere. Compared to even Maricopa, Carpinteria seemed bereft of an intriguing and important fossil assemblage. Why? How were the other tar pits able to yield impressive fossils of ice age beasts while the Carpinteria assemblage looks like the collection of an amateur naturalist?  I intend to show you why, and to also show you that Carpinteria’s fossils are every bit as interesting and important as all the other sites.

Paul Collins, curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, was nice enough to help me my efforts to bring this unique site to light. Not only did he provide me with many wonderful paper, but he even took me behind the scenes to photograph the specimens! And his awesomeness doesn’t end there. When i visited, he was working o identifying 9,000 bird remains dug up in a cave on the Channel Islands. This work ill help us understand the changes the faunas of the islands may have undergone through time. It’s almost like paleontology! But alas we are here to talk about the fossils from the tar pits. I’ll start with the big guys first, since there aren’t that many of them.

There are between 3 and 6 species of large mammals identified from the Carpinteria deposits. Unfortunately they are all known from very limited and fragmentary remains. The horse appears to be most well represented, known by a number of limb elements. While no solid id can be made, it does most resemble the western horse, Equus occidentalis. Bones referable to Odocoileus were found, but so far cannot be distinguished between white-tail and mule deer. Camelops, the big camelid of the American Pleistocene, is known from a single vertebra. Bison may have been around as well, as hinted at by a navicular-cuboid (bone from the ankle joint). A fragment of skull with a milk tooth may have belonged to the formidable American lion. Finally, the dire wolf rounds out the large mammals, being represented by a couple upper jaw fragments and a possible limb bone (and maybe something else, see photo below). All in all, the material representing the popular megafauna could hardly be called enviable, consisting of bits and pieces. But by no means was Carpenteria a bust. It’s treasures just exist on a smaller scale.

Foot bone of an extinct horse.

A vertebra in proper need of identification. In a paper, it was referred to Camelops sp. But in the storage tray it was labeled as bison. Anyone out there got any ideas?

A calcaneus from a large hoofed mammal, either horse, bison, or camel.

A baculum (or penis bone) from a large wolf, possibly a dire wolf.

Small animal remains are far more numerous. Coyotes and gray foxes are well represented. Another common species is the striped skunk, with the spotted skunk being much rarer. A single calcaneus (heel bone) of the badger is known. Rodents were as abundant as ever, with gophers, mice, voles, and squirrels. Reptiles such as lizards, turtles, and snakes make an appearance, though not that common. The ornate shrew was present. But where the tar seeps really shine is the birds.

Two of several striped skunk skulls found at the site

Lowers jaws of the ornate(?) shrew

Gray squirrel teeth

To date, 79 species of birds have been identified from the Carpinteria tar pit. Most of them are alive today and any birder would be able to spot them (assuming this birder discovered time travel that is). There are so  many birds i don’t know where to start. Well for starters, one bone has been identified as a pelican. Raptors are especially prevalent, with the bald eagle, golden eagle, cooper hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and barn owl inhabiting the paleoenviornment. California condor and Merrium’s Teratorn (Teratornis ) also joined the ranks of the avifauna.

A metatarsal of the most famous of ice age birds, Merriam’s Teratorn (Teratornis merriami)

Bones from an ancient roadrunner.

Proximal humerus (end of upper arm bone that connects to the shoulder) of an extinct stork.

Woodpecker skull

Thigh and foot bones from the band-tailed pigeon. Bask in the glory of Paleo Pigeon!

The local streams, ponds, and beach front were home to pelicans, rails, and ducks. The woodlands must have been alive with the calls of king birds, western meadow larks, crows, scrub jays, and finches. Turkeys and road runners foraged on the forest floor. Wood peckers would have been busy carving out nests while band-tailed pigeons gave them all that funny look of theirs.

Plant fossils may be on par with birds in terms of abundance. Pine cones are plentiful in the deposit, most belonging to the Monterey pine. Cypress cones have also been found, as well as the remains of oak, manzanita, juniper, and fir. These plants reveal that Carpinteria was cooler and wetter during this time period. Indeed, it may have resembled the present day Monterey Peninsula.

One of the numerous Monterey Pine cones.

An oak leave. Sorry for the picture, but the leaf was too delicate to remove from it’s vial.

A bunch of seeds from the Manzanita plant.

But that’s not all. There is a rather curious addition to the fossil assemblage. In the tar pit scientists found lots of shells of invertebrates. Probably not too surprising except for the fact that these were marine organisms. To top that off, the asphalt even yielded a few pieces of whale bone. How could this have happened? The Pleistocene is often referred to as the ice age. But it was actually a series of ice ages separated by warmer stretches of time known as inter-glacial periods. Some of the inter-glacial periods were warm enough to melt the polar ice caps a little and raise sea level. This caused some coastal areas to be underwater. Carpinteria is close enough (hell it’s practically on the beach) to have been submerged during one of these periods. But there is sill some mystery as to how the fossils got there. Was the asphalt trap active during the submerged stage, trapping live marine animals? Or were these the remains of animals resting on the sea floor that were later subsumed by the asphalt when the seep became active? Perhaps future research provide the answer.

Marine gastropods (snails).

An unusual looking bivalve. I have a couple modern shells like this, but i don’t know the scientific name.

A couple pieces of bone (probably rib) from a whale

Carpinteria’s tar pit biota is a gem no matter how you look at it. Many may think it’s not as impressive as the other tar pit deposits, especially Rancho la Brea. But the scientific and educational value (not to mention interest) of something should not be judged based on how it measures up to the well known articles. Ice age deposits, from Diamond Valley to Snowmass Village and beyond, are always reported to “rival the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles”. So the site can’t be judged based on there own merit, they have somehow compare and compete with Rancho la Brea? This is just like how news outlets are always trying to link, if not out right compare, every new theropod to Tyrannosaurus rex. Brian Switek as lamented this many times; can’t say i blame him given how pervasive the trend is. Comparing sites can be insightful and should be done, but not in this stupid competitive sense that people seem to think is the only way that matters. Every fossil, and every fossil locality, is unique and that is what makes them interesting. You can keep trying to compare to the bigger, the more complete, the “cooler”, the truth is that doesn’t achieve anything. One fossil site is not a representative for the ancient anymore than one theropod represents all meat eating dinosaurs. All are equally important and all have their own stories to tell. The famous and well known have had their stories told and retold countless times. Maybe it’s time we give them a break so that the many other wonderful places and creatures can have their chance to be heard.

I have learned a lot in researching this post. Sure, i finally gained a clear picture of what was found in the Carpinteria tar pits. But i like to think i got something more. I got to experience another piece of my heritage, as well as the heritage of everyone on the Central Coast. We had our own version of Rancho la Brea, not as big and flashy but every bit important. I learned that fossils are always fascinating because they are fossils. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, or if it has a backbone or not, or if it’s a fragment or a whole skeleton. It is a piece of prehistory, a record of a living, breathing organism who lived so long ago as to make human history look like the blink of an eye. A tiny brachiopod is just as amazing as the biggest dinosaur because both made the impossible journey through millions of years of geologic upheaval to arrive at the present day. And that is what i want to teach people, whether it be with my little blog here or the museum i someday hope (a fools hope at that) to create. I hope to give a stage for the fossil mammals of California and Oregon, the Dinosaurs of the American West and even Baja California, and the strange creatures who preceded the monsters of the Mesozoic. But above all, i want to give a voice to the forgotten denizens of the Central Coast. A very big thanks goes to Paul Collins and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I am both humbled and grateful that they shared this important piece of our heritage with me, so that i could share it with you.

Till next time!

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