To many people, LA is a city of dreams. We’ve all seen the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and been dazzled by the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. But there’s another side to LA as well. It’s much older, it’s much more ferocious, and it was wandering around near the La Brea Tar Pits earlier in the year.
If you’ve never heard of the tar pits, they’re an intriguing glimpse into the dim and distant past. And they just happen to be in the very heart of one of the biggest cities on the planet. You’ll find them in Hancock Park, but you’re going to be want to be careful around them. They’ve been the final resting place of thousands of creatures over the years.
The pits are made up of naturally occurring asphalt. And in one form or another, they’ve been there for an incredibly long time. Interestingly though, the tar pits that you can see in modern LA are actually reasonably recent excavations. There’s a very good reason why people were so interested in digging them up.
For a couple of years in the early part of the past century, scientists dug about a hundred pits. What they were looking for were the remains of ancient creatures that had unwittingly stumbled into the tar. Thanks to the unique makeup of the pits, anything that died after wandering into them has been wonderfully well preserved.
A huge number of different species have been discovered in the pits. Perhaps the most famous are the wooly mammoths. But bears, dire-wolves and ground sloths have all been found as well. And then there’s the saber-toothed cat, which has become the state fossil of California.
Only one human has ever been discovered in the pits. She was somewhere about 25 years old when she died, and she entered the tar about 10,000 years ago. Known as the La Brea Woman, she was found next to the remains of a dog. This led scientists to believe that her burial in the pits was more ceremony than accident.
While the large mammal skeletons found in the pits might be of the most interest to the public at large, plenty of other exciting things have been discovered at La Brea. Fossils of insects, plants and pollen are also present in the tar. Using these, scientists have been able to get a better idea of what life was like around the tar pits in the last glacial period.
Really though, it’s the extinct creatures that capture the imagination. While the mammoths might be the biggest things found, they’re not the most frequently discovered. That honor goes to the dire-wolf. But coming in second in terms of discovery is the equally ferocious saber-tooth cat.
About 2500 fossilized cats have been discovered in the pits. Scientists know them as Smilodon fatalis. They were roughly the same size as modern lions from Africa. Obviously though, they’re best known for the impressive fangs they sported at the front of their mouths. Scientists think that the cats around the tar pits lived on a diet of bison.
The cats were large and strongly built, and they were perfect for ambushing prey, often taking down animals much larger than themselves. Thankfully for us though, the saber-tooth cat went extinct some 11,000 years ago. Or at least, scientists thought it did. The residents of LA tell a different story.
That’s because a good deal of them witnessed something incredible earlier in the year. A huge saber-tooth cat was seen walking down Wilshire Boulevard. The roaring, biting creature was certainly a shocking sight. But you don’t need to worry too much. This wasn’t some long-lost prehistoric monster back to stake its claim on the tar pits.
In fact, what the people of LA saw was a puppet. A puppet designed by the Jim Henson Company no less. Rather than a living, breathing relic of the bygone past, the puppet is actually controlled by two people. And on this particular day it was making its way to its brand new home.
There’s a man inside the puppet. It weighs about 75 pounds, and they’re strapped into it with a harness. The back legs are the puppeteer’s own, while the front legs are handled by arm stilts. Intriguingly though, the growling maw of the creature is controlled entirely separately from the rest.
The head of the puppet is remotely controlled by another performer. Working in tandem, the two of them create the illusion that the fearsome creature is actually alive. And they’ve been doing it since 2010. That’s when the saber-tooth cat puppet first went on show in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
The puppet had been entertaining visitors to the museum for more than half a decade, but when it came time to move to a new home, there was really only one way to go about it. And so a piece of prehistory got a chance to strut its stuff among the pedestrians and workers of urban Los Angeles.
Understandably, crowds gathered to watch the procession. The puppet was heading to the La Brea Tar Pits Page Museum. There it’s set to become the star of a new show called Ice Age Encounters. Although it’s fair to say that a lot of people out in LA that day got their own special ice age encounter.
The 15-minute show offers a multimedia experience. Alongside the puppet, there’s a film presentation and a live performance. It’s designed to give visitors a glimpse into the ancient history of the area. It runs Friday to Sunday at the museum, allowing attendees to get up close and personal with the saber-tooth puppet.
The Jim Henson Company worked closely with paleontologists at the Natural History Museum when they were making the puppet. They needed to get the size and movements of the creature just right. Thanks to the fossilized remains found in the tar pits, the designers had a lot to work with. The fur of the saber-tooth cat was another story though.
While the creature’s face is based on an actual skull discovered in the pits, no fur remnants of the saber-tooth cat have ever been discovered. That meant that researchers from the museum needed to guess what the cat would have looked like. So the patterns on the puppet’s fur are taken from an understanding of the cat’s habitat and best-guesses based on its modern ancestors.
While the puppet was designed with children in mind, the paleontologists involved in the project were awestruck as well. The saber-tooth cat is designed to inspire the younger generation, and hopefully that’s something it’s going to be able to continue to do from its new home as well.