Finding, and losing, fossils in Los Angeles

The discovery of 300,000-year-old marine life remains — and one producer's struggle to hold onto them.

How do you find a fossil in Los Angeles?

This is not a joke. And there’s no punch line about some aging B-actress in a supporting role as an innocent-but-doomed librarian in a straight-to-video horror movie.  

Here’s how we found fossils in this week’s “TechKnow”: Traveling 70 feet below the surface of the earth. Construction crews just finished a seven-story deep exploratory shaft to test for a subway tunnel under the city’s famed Wilshire Boulevard.

“Seventy feet and 330,000 years,” is how Kim Scott explained it. She’s the chief paleontologist on the LA Metro’s “subway to the sea” project. It’s her job to keep track of all the fossils they find on the way to the current shoreline. I say current, because all the way down at the bottom of the hole they just dug, they’re finding plenty of evidence that the ocean covered this entire area.

What is your typical urban jungle now—traffic, tall buildings, museums and long lines of food trucks—was once home for sea creatures like the geoduck clam. Maybe you already know about this critter. They’re found way north of Southern California. They need a cool wet climate. That sure ain’t here in Los Angeles anymore. I bring up the geoduck because I can’t get over how you pronounce it: gooey-duck. The name is perfect for how they were pulled out of the pit here—encased in a gooey asphalt, more colloquially known as tar.

A tar pit bubbles in Los Angeles.

That’s how the fossils were found at the bottom of the shaft, preserved in three-centuries old glop. Along with those clams, they found stumps of Monterey Cypress trees, which was a bit of a pleasant surprise for Kim. Kim says the take-away from these trees is more simply more evidence that Southern California used to be so cold. You can still find Monterey Cypress here, but only in cooler, wetter areas starting at 5,000 feet.

Digging for LA’s future subway has revealed this amazing pre-historic past, and Kim’s enthusiasm about what’s been found down there is infectious. I asked her to describe what it was like to hold something 300,000 years old. I was expecting a sound-bite about how amazing it is, how awesome, how life-changing.

Boy, was I wrong. She said, “I’m a paleontologist, 300,000 years is chump change in my world. Let me know when you hit a million.”

It didn’t dampen my fascination. I asked if we could have a couple of samples for the TechKnow contributors to see in person. “We’ve got something from the spoils pile,” she said, and offered two pieces from the stuff that isn’t adequately documented during the collection process. She gave me an itty bitty piece of Monterey Cypress and a clump of asphalt, both 300,000 years old.

She treated both like they were rejects from an “American Idol” try-out. I treated them like they were the crown jewels of England. However, the only thing around to put them in was a plastic cup from the water cooler. I brought them back to work, let everyone hold them like it was a kindergarten show and tell. I handed the cup to the associate producer, who put it on her desk.

Sometime overnight the cup disappeared. When she realized it was gone she had a bit of Category 5 panic attack. You should know that my desk looks like Hurricane Katrina swept in, and the AP’s is way more organized. You’d never think anything on it was trash. We deduced that the cleaning crew had accidentally tossed it.

If you watch as much CSI as I do, you know what comes next. Yup, time for a dumpster dive. In a shockingly loud flower-power sundress—and in 100-degree heat—I climbed up an SUV, into the dumpster and started poring through the bags of oozing garbage.

Eureka! I recognized a script by our executive producer. I was zeroing in on the target. And there it was, among the single shot K-cups that will probably be discovered by some paleontologist 500 years from now—my 300,000-year-old prehistoric swag.  

And that is how a producer finds a fossil in Los Angeles.

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