By James Bartlett
The La Brea Tar Pits still bubble and pop their sticky black substances some 50,000 years after mammoths roamed around what we now know as the City of Angels, and even people who have never been to L.A. will ll recognize them from the 1997 disaster movie Volcano.
Creatures that accidentally stepped into the mire were doomed, and discoveries and digging began in the area over 100 years ago. The nearby museum is home to many of the specimens found in the muck, and staff, students and volunteers have been painstakingly excavating, cleaning, cataloging and displaying incredible Ice Age fossils since it opened in 1977.
Some of the most common finds are scary-looking skulls of ancient saber-toothed cats, but hundreds of thousands of animals and plants of all kinds have been found down in the darkness – and some of them form the center of the exhibit “Mammoths and Mastodons”.
Running alongside other permanent exhibits, the exhibition allows you to discover these magnificent beasts, as well as getting up close to some of La Brea’s other fossils. Life-sized replicas will show what the creatures from 10-50,000 years ago looked like in real life, and be warned: they’re really, really big!
Aisling Farrell was born and raised in County Tipperary, and as the museum’s collection manager she spends most of her days looking back in time. She spoke to us about the exhibition, her Irish background, and how she started her journey to California.
“When I was finished with school I headed to college in the big smoke of the Rebel County!” she laughs. “I spent four great years at University College in Cork, and a whole new world opened up for me in the city. I loved living in Cork, but like lots of folks the wet weather in Ireland was getting me down, so I needed to find some sun. Where better to go than the other side of the world?”
Armed with her degree in zoology she went to Australia on a year work visa, living in a van for a year as she drove around the continent with friends. After traveling for another year she moved to London to study at Imperial College, where her research focused on taxonomy and systematics, and saw her spending lots of time at the Natural History Museum as she pursued her career in all things natural history.
“Several years later I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles,” she says, admitting that she never planned to stay. That was nearly 15 years ago.
“Of course I had fantasy ideas about an “Indiana Jones” style of work,” she laughs, “which is not at all what it’s like here at the museum!”
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles she started volunteering at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, and later applied for a job there. Since then she has had experience in several departments, lead tours, developed educational programs, excavated Ice Age bones from the park here, and curated specimens.
Though she might give the impression that museum life isn’t exciting, Aisling has also traveled to China, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Uruguay in search of fossil sites, and has dug for dinosaur bones with her job at many locations in the United States.
“I never have a typical day,” she explains, “because there is always something different to do at the museum, like requests to help with projects, brainstorming research ideas and facilitating museum programs.”
Aisling says that she relaxes by trying to get out of the city. She especially loves visiting the Southwestern region of the USA.
“Depending on the time of year, I am either climbing a mountain in the Eastern Sierras, camping in the desert or road-tripping up the Pacific Coast Highway.”
“In all these places I am always on the lookout for wildlife to photograph. There are sea otters, elephant seals, black bears, raccoons, Californian condors, golden eagles, pikas, kangaroo rats, skunks, bobcats, and the elusive puma (which I have never seen in the wild).”
Aisling tries to travel home every year, and says it’s hard to decide on her favorite memory of Ireland.
“There are so many things now that I miss about home (and) of course I spent much of my time as a teenager dreaming of getting away. I really miss my family and have especially lovely childhood memories of time with my grandmother. My brother and I grew up in the countryside, riding ponies, hunting for mushrooms and blackberries and exploring nature in the fields in clean fresh air.”
As for the future, she plans to see as much of the world as possible – the next plan is to go somewhere in the Himalayas – and she considers herself likely to be a “museum lifer.”
- Font Size
- Reading Mode
By James Bartlett