Microfossil sorting with a little help from our friends

The La Brea Tar Pits might be best known for the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and mammoths that have been excavated from our grounds, but it is in the matrix surrounding fossils of these large animals that we find innumerous microfossils critical to our “Mouse’s Eye View” research. Plant pieces, shells, insect parts, and the bones of small mammals are readily found among the asphalt chunks, rocks, and minerals that make up the matrix. While bones of large mammals and birds are individually catalogued, everything else gets cleaned and placed in cans as bulk matrix. Volunteers in the La Brea Museum Fossil Lab help sort through this matrix, pulling out microfossils that are important for research. Recently, they’ve been focused on sorting out small mammal teeth and jaws for inclusion in our food webs analysis. However, as you can imagine, sorting through so much matrix is time-consuming and beyond the capacity of our lab volunteers. Fortunately, sorting matrix is fun and educational and therefore perfect for citizen science! We are partnering with teachers in Los Angeles to involve middle and high school students in sorting microfossils for use in food webs research. To do this, we’ve developed a microfossil sorting kit and an online iNaturalist project.


Cans of bulk matrix await sorting

In the sorting kits and accompanying comic, student citizen scientists learn all about tar pits and how to sort. They then sort the matrix into categories, Bones, Plants, etc., using paintbrushes, just like they do in the Fossil Lab. We also provide magnifying lenses to help with identification. After the matrix is sorted, microfossils from each category are placed in vials and returned to La Brea Tar Pits where they will move on to the next stages of our research and analysis. This round of sorting kits will be distributed in early 2018.fullsizeoutput_211f.jpeg

Naturally, we don’t expect our student citizen scientists or their teachers to be expert microfossils identifiers from the start, so we developed a La Brea Webs iNaturalist project to aid in identification. iNaturalist is an online network of observers documenting evidence of life around them. We started this project with a sampling of microfossils typically found in the matrix, including everything from seeds and bits of wood, to bird vertebrae, insect limbs, turtle shell fragments, lizard jaws, and mouse leg bones. In addition to this project serving as an identification resource, it is an open project that anyone can contribute to with images of La Brea microfossils found in sorting kits. Also, if classrooms contribute images of unidentified microfossils, La Brea researchers will help with identification. We’re eager to see the organisms students find in their sorting kits!

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Sampling of images in our La Brea Webs iNaturalist project

We’re excited to work with teachers to bring authentic scientific specimens into classrooms and to collaborate on microfossil sorting. If you’re a Los Angeles middle or high school teacher and would like to learn more about using microfossils in your classroom, join us for an introductory workshop on Dec. 9, 2017.

Special thanks to La Brea Tar Pits Research & Collections and Education staff who developed the original sorting kits, to Bailee Desrocher for her work to create the tar pits comic, and to our iNaturalist project contributors, particularly Noel Graham, Nate Fox, and Aisling Farrell.

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