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Paleontologists Bring L.A.'s Ancient Past Back To Life At La Brea Tar Pits

Bubbling water over 20 million-year-old oil deposits. Remains of animals from thousands of years ago. It's a place the ancient comes to life: L.A.'s iconic La Brea Tar Pits.

"Each of these boxes here is like a giant Christmas present," says Dr. Emily Lindsey, the Excavation Site Director and Assistant Curator of the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum. "Every single thing that you take out, like you are the first person ever in the history of everything to have seen that fossil."

Each of the crates on the site contain a mix of tar and treasure -- remains of animals that called Los Angeles home as far back as 50,000 years ago.

Bones from mammoths, dire wolves and saber-tooth cats have all been discovered here.

CBS2's Danielle Gersh headed out in the Toyota Mobile Weather Lab to see what's being unearthed and why what's so important.

I'm a paleontologist," Lindsey says. "A paleontologist is basically a detective who uses clues from the past to figure out what life was like long ago and how we got to the place that we are today."

Her specialty?

"I study the large extinct animals that lived here during the ice age," she says, "and why most of them went extinct."

Lindsey showed us around the museum, opening a drawer of bones from the feet of camels, which "are actually native to North America."

She also showed us a large fossil from a 30,000-year-old mammoth, found "in the parking garage" she says. "These are his two upper teeth, so one in each jaw."

Her team is additionally working to preserve the remains of saber-tooth cats, which were once common here in L.A. Volunteers in the museum's fossil lab often encounter their bones, cleaning and protecting them for the museum bass carnivore collection.

Anyone 16 or older can volunteer.

"They're touching real bones and the real bones they are touching are between 30 and 50000 years old," she says.

Of all the STEAM disciplines — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — Lindsey relies most on science. And the science indicates there's a close correlation between climate change and extinction of once powerful animals. The concern now?

"If we don't change the trajectory we are on the human species could also potentially drive itself to extinction," she explains.

Lindsey and her colleagues are working hard to discover what we can do to protect ourselves. But they desperately need help. She hopes every young student will consider studying the sciences.

"There are a lot of big challenges that the world is facing right now." she says. "The more you learn, you're going to be the one to help fix these problems."

More than 1 million bones have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits.

If you visit you will see scientists hard at work digging away in the asphalt. And because it's L.A., sometimes they're even mistaken for actors.Emily Lindsey, the Assistant Curator and Excavation Site Director of the La Brea Tar Pits, shows how paleontologists bring the past back to life.

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