Stop 12: La Brea

On June 28, we left Monterey and drove south following the California coast as much as we could. It was a beautiful drive!

CA coast, south of Monterey

After driving along the coast, we headed in toward Los Angeles. Fortunately, David doesn’t mind driving in big cities like Chicago and Paris. So he didn’t have any trouble here, but we were all impressed with the size of the highways… 10 lanes wide, one way! A bit more than we’re used to in Indianapolis. The city is large and sprawling, but not quite as overwhelming as New York. Our first stop was at the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum where we would experience the Ice Age of 30,000 years ago. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we certainly didn’t realize that the Tar Pits are smack in the middle of downtown LA. We found a place to park across from Hancock Park and walked across the wide street. The park is surrounded by apartment buildings and a few high rises. Sirens could be heard in the distance. It was quite a contrast to the far-from-civilization places we had seen, and not where we would have guessed an interesting bit of natural history would be found. California continued to show us that our preconceived notions of the state were all wrong.

Here’s a little video I put together with a stop along the coast, followed by the walk through Hancock Park up to the Page Museum. It’s not really geologically relevant, but I think anyone who hasn’t been here will appreciate the atmosphere of the park and its location within the city.

The contact I had found at the Page Museum set me up with a tour guide named Rocio Santoyo. We were scheduled to arrive in time for her last tour of the day, then have a chance to interview her afterwards. We were running a little late, so we didn’t get a chance to check out the exhibits until later. We were able to jump into the tour group and make introductions right before she began the tour.

The tour started in front of the lab. As a science teacher, it was really neat to see another place (like at Ashfall and Dinosaur) where paleontology research is an ongoing activity. We watched researchers sorting microfossils under microscopes. They were seated along a glass wall, so we could watch them work, without being able to interfere. A few of them would post notes to tell us what they were working on, and they had little displays of the tiny mammal jaws and teeth they had found. In the middle of the lab, and labeled boldly, there was a HUGE skull partially encased in plaster and cloth. This belongs to the Colombian Mammoth, Zed.

Here Rocio is introducing us to the museum and lab…

The tour group walked outside to the Observation Pit. It was designed to give visitors an idea of what researchers would have seen when they first opened a pit years ago.

Inside the Observation Pit

This pit was opened, each fossil taken out, recorded, then put back in place for visitors to see. Here is our view of the pit…  and here is a link to an article written about the re-opening of the pit. It was actually published on the day we visited!

Tar pit, obscured by leaves

We walked further to a pit that had been completely excavated to a depth of about 30 feet. It has since filled in with oil that seeped in. It became obvious how these animals could have stepped into the oil without noticing it was there. Rocio explained further: 

Then we walked to see and learn about Project 23. 

When we were done with the tour, I got a chance to ask Rocio some questions myself…
It was nice to talk to another female scientist, since most of the people I interviewed on this trip were male. I think it’s really good to be able to show my students that science is done by a diverse group of people. One of my colleagues who teaches chemistry is always frustrated that the History of Atomic Theory might as well be called the Old Dead White Guy unit. She and I are glad to see that science is changing and the field is closer to reflecting the population now. Rocio is an excellent example of a woman who is passionately curious about the world around her, and that is what science needs! Yay for women scientists!

When we left Rocio, we went into the museum to see some of the exhibits that we had missed earlier. The museum was close to closing, so we saw a few things before heading out.

Sabre-toothed Cat skeleton

I thought this display was particularly cool. You look into a window and see a skeleton, but if you glance away and look back, it has changed!

Sabre-toothed cat!

We also enjoyed seeing the skulls of the most common fossil they have found… Dire wolves!

Many dire wolves and a Kieran

I didn’t use a tripod here, but I should have. My photos didn’t come out that great in the low light of the museum, which was a bit disappointing. Here is one more that I liked. It’s through a window of a storeroom. This gives you a bit of an idea how HUGE the collection of fossils is at the Page Museum.

Part of the fossil collection

This is one of many places I wish I could have spent more time. It is really unique!

When the museum closed, we left to do the normal tourist things in LA. We drove up to see the Hollywood sign, went up Mulholland Drive, then went toward the shore one last time for dinner.

Proof we went to LA

I enjoyed posting pictures of all the mansions to Facebook. I labeled them with 80s star’s names, although we really had no idea who lived there. I guess I was getting a little loopy from the hours on the road! We had not picked out a place to eat, but thought LA would be a good place to get some food that didn’t come out of our cooler. We let Evan use Urbanspoon and/or Yelp to pick a spot. He suggested a place a bit out of our way, but what’s an extra few miles on a 7200 mile journey? We drove to Malibu just in time for some fried seafood on the beach at sunset. It might have been my favorite meal on the trip!

K representin' Indy

Again, I failed to use my tripod and regretted it later, but I was kinda too covered in sand and grease to mess with all the gear.

Me and my sweetheart

Not the best picture of us, but let me tell you, the beach was beautiful and we had a wonderful evening. We left Malibu for a drive to Ontario, California. We got in late, but we were OK with that. We had enjoyed our little slice of LA and were ready to leave the Pacific coast for our next adventure.

Stop 3: Dinosaur


(Disclaimer: this post was written while driving through Colorado and Utah. I was very distracted by looking out the window. If this makes less sense than normal, that’s why.) After a colorful drive through the Colorado Rockies yesterday, we stopped for the night in Dinosaur, Colorado on June 16th. We stayed in another little 1960’s style motel since the price was right and there wasn’t a closer place to stay. This one was on US 40, which is the same road we live off of, just 1400 miles east. The town of 300 people has a welcome center with some description of the area, a couple of ice cream stores, two gas stations, two motels (but only one is currently open) and a couple of geocaches. Either the beds are getting softer as we go west or the combination of the long days and the high altitude has made sleep come easier!

Today we awoke from a fantastic night’s sleep and headed out to Dinosaur National monument to meet with paleontologist Dan Chure. The drive in was spectacular, with many different colors of rock exposed, all tilted at angles, lifted up from the horizontal where they had been deposited. We met at his office and he explained how the park came to be. In the early 1900’s, eight vertebrae from a large sauropod dinosaur were discovered north of Jensen, UT. The monument was established in 1915, a year before the National Parks Service was established. When excavation of the area started, they realized this was a very large deposit of bones. Later on, an area near the dinosaur bone quarry was a proposed new national park. The decision was made to incorporate this area into the National Monument. Former AP Environmental Science students will immediately recognize the benefit that one large park would provide over two smaller ones: less habitat fragmentation. The quarry was covered in the 1950’s so visitors could see the bones in situ, like at Ashfall. In 2005, the structure had to be renovated, and the current building was completed in 2012. During the time of the renovations, the quarry with all the prepared bones was inaccessible to the public, so a fossil discovery trail was built in an adjacent area where the same rock layer as the quarry is partially exposed. This allows visitors to see bones in the rock face, unaltered by man. When the new building was opened, the decision was made to keep the fossil discovery trail accessible so visitors now can experience the fossils exposed by paleontologists indoors, then find them out in nature on their own.

I must admit, before meeting Dan, I was a little concerned that I didn’t know enough about specific dinosaur species and that he’d be talking over my head about the specifics. I was very happy to find that the purpose of the park is to preserve and describe the ecosystem, not just the dinosaurs. Dan said that while the dinosaur bones are the things people come to see, he and the park staff are mostly concerned with providing visitors with a full interpretation of the lives the dinosaurs lived and the natural forces and other species they interacted with. I love talking with Big Picture people! Dan was educated in New York, and then came to Dinosaur National monument in 1979 and has been there since. It was amazing talking to someone who has such intimate knowledge of the place.

After talking at his office for a bit, we drove up to the quarry. The view from the parking lot is incredible. So many colors of rock! The sedimentary rock layers were deposited millions of years ago in horizontal layers, then the rocks were broken and pushed up out of the earth when the crust was crumpled by colliding tectonic plates more recently. Since they were thrust upward, they have all been eroded by wind and rain at different rates, so different layers appear more prevalent than others. We took a few pictures from the parking lot, and then walked up to the exhibit building. When we went in, it took us a few minutes to get oriented to what we were seeing. Dan referred to the quarry face as looking like a “log jam”. It is a jumble of dinosaur bones from different species and different individuals. We are used to seeing the dinosaurs at the Field Museum, each skeleton complete and in a lifelike position. We could see a few places where several vertebrae were articulated, but no skull or tail was attached.

The quarry face

Dan explained that the layer we were looking at had once been an ancient stream bed. During a period of drought, the dinosaurs came to their usual drinking spot, but found little water. They may have even tried to dig down into the river bed to find water there. Many dinosaurs died of thirst here and eventually were buried in sediment when the river flowed again. As Dan said, this deposit of dinosaur bones is biased in favor of preserving larger specimens, so there are more adult Camarasaurus bones than anything else. The bones were all disjointed as they were carried downstream in flash floods. The heaviest bones were not transported as far as the smaller bones of juveniles or smaller species. Camarasaurus was a large sauropod dinosaur with femur bones taller than Evan. The sauropod group of dinosaurs includes the large, herbivorous, quadrupedal dinosaurs. Other examples include Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus. A Camarasaurus skull and vertebrae are exposed at the top of the exhibit, and it is the only skull in the quarry face. Allosaurus was also found here. It was a large carnivorous species. Again, we found that there were far more herbivores than predatory species, as a lot of prey are required to support a top predator. (Remember the 10% rule, APES kids?)


Diplodocus femur (left) and Apatasaurus femur (right)



Dan showed us a section of the quarry face where the rock was about three feet thicker than the rest of the wall. On this section was a Camaraurus that must have died later than the others, since it was buried in a layer above the others. I asked Dan how many years of the geologic record that thickness represented, and he said it was impossible to tell. He estimated that it might be a few centuries. I thought this was an interesting example of what some people struggle with when learning science. We humans like to have our questions answered, but sometimes the answer is “we don’t know”. Students often find this difficult to accept, but it’s something you have to get used to when studying science.

(Disclaimer: the following paragraph is intended for my students. The casual reader may want to skip it.) Dan went on to explain that the rock in this area does not contain any isotopes that could help determine the answer. Even if the three feet of rock that I was asking about had datable isotopes on the top and bottom layers, the range of error would produce overlapping dates. This is another issue students struggle with… how radiometric dating works. There are some isotopes (versions of elements) that are unstable and change over time to other, more stable versions.  Carbon-14 dating is the method most people are aware of. Carbon-14 decays to become Nitrogen-14.  In any sample, half of the C-14 atoms will decay over a period of 5730 years or so.  This amount of time is called the half-life.  After the first half life, 50% of the original sample is left.  After the second half life, 25% is left, and so on. When you approach 17 half-lives, the remaining carbon-14 is such a small amount (0.00076% of the original), it is hardly measurable, and so C-14 dating is no longer useful.  All the isotopes used in radiometric dating have a range of dates for which they are useful, based on the length of their half-life. If the carbon-14 content in the bones preserved here were measured, the result would be a really small number (maybe none could be detected), meaning the bones are really old, but a precise date couldn’t be determined. Another isotope would have to be used. Other isotopes have different decay rates, so they can be used to date older bones or the rock they are found in. I use a cooking thermometer analogy with my students. There are several types. Using a meat thermometer when making candy will not work because the meat thermometer’s range may only go up to 220 degrees F, when you need to boil your candy to 400 degrees F.  If you put that thermometer in the boiling candy syrup, it will read the highest measurement it can, but not give you a precise temperature.  It is not the right tool for the job, even though it works great for its intended purpose.

Speaking with Rick at Ashfall and Dan at Dinosaur got me thinking about how interdisciplinary scientific research is. We teach science in chunks, so kids never really get an integrated picture.  In elementary and middle school, kids learn many aspects of science each year, but it seems they are often disjointed. We teach butterfly lifecycles one week and rock types the next, and memorizing symbols of the elements the next. Then students get to high school and study one topic fairly deeply each year, but often with no explanation of how it fits into the full puzzle of science. It’s no wonder some people question the importance of a solid science education. I have long believed that science classes should include more time on the nature of science and how each discipline fits in with the others. Personally, when teaching Environmental Science I find this very easy to do, because it is a very interdisciplinary science. I do not spend much time on the nature of science when I teach chemistry, but this experience has been extremely beneficial to help me see how chemistry is relevant to other fields of study.

Apatasaurus in the quarry face


Diplodocus femur (left), Apatasaurus femur (right)

After leaving the quarry, we walked the fossil discovery trail, and then went to see another section of the park, which Dan had suggested. This involved a fairly long, but beautiful drive through the middle of the park. We came to a trail head that had great scenery. We grabbed the cameras, some water, but no sunscreen (that’s the last time we make that mistake) and headed down the trail. After about a mile we were rewarded with fantastic views of the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, which carved the canyons of the park. The exposed rock layers were of many colors, the trees and wildflowers were beautiful, and at the end of the trail, we found ourselves standing on an outcrop of limestone filled with marine invertebrate fossils. We recognized crinoid and brachiopod fossils, just like we find at home in Indiana. On the way out of the park, we saw several animals including a mule deer which leaped over the fence designed to hold in the cattle that graze in the park. In summary, Dinosaur National Monument is truly a national treasure filled with an amazing historical record and some of the loveliest scenery in the country.


The Green River from Harper's Corner Trail

Here is a clip of the interview with Dan. We are getting better at this. In this episode, David is filming, so I am not trying to both film and ask questions. But, it wasn’t until after this interview that we had a talk with Kieran about how to stay out of the shot. I apologize in advance for all of his goofy behavior (at one point, I think he’s comparing his two elbows). There will also be a video of our two hikes, one of these days. Enjoy!