Mammoths Under LA

SD Mines Alumna Ashley Leger, PhD.

Under Los Angeles’ streets, the clinks and clangs of construction meld with the rumblings of the subway line—an echo of rumblings tens of thousands of years old. Back then, LA teemed with life of a different sort. Saber-tooth cats, ancient camels, and mastodons roamed, many meeting their fate in the sticky pools of the La Brea Tar Pits or dying of natural causes, remaining undisturbed beneath the shimmer of LA. That is until paleontologist Ashley Leger (PhD Geol GeolE 16) got a call from a colleague working on the Purple Subway Line.

A skull had been discovered.  

Fresh from her PhD at Mines and now serving as the lead paleontologist for the Purple Line Extension, Leger took one look and knew it likely belonged to a young and/or female mastodon or mammoth, the Ice Age’s ancestral relative of the elephant. From there, the fossils poured forth. A mastodon tusk. Tooth fragments. Thigh bones. And an extremely rare forearm from a now-extinct camel. While LA is fertile ground for fossils, boasting thousands of dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, Leger says only about forty camels, or Camelops hesternus, have ever been unearthed from the tar pits.

The fact that anything was unearthed still astounds Leger. “Paleontologists estimate less than 1 percent of life on earth fossilizes.” A staggering amount of that fossilized life is found in LA. This area, anchored by the LA County Museum of Art, has one of the largest collection of Ice Age fossils in the world.  

As paleontological field director and assistant safety director for Cogstone Resource Management, Leger leads the excavation of specimens and helps with identification, extraction, transport, and preparation before delivering them to the museum for permanent display.

Before LA, Leger spent ten years at South Dakota's Mammoth Site while pursuing her PhD, learning about these animals, their size, their interactions, when and where they lived—stories that could only be told by their bones. 

“These animals once loomed over North America. It can be hard to imagine giant elephant-like animals and camels roaming LA, but paleontology gives us glimpses into the past that only the fossil record can show us. When we work on these fossils, we are likely the first humans to come in contact with them. To look into its face and wonder how long it's been since it has seen the light of day is a powerful experience.”

“I never dreamed that within one year of graduating, I’d have led the effort on amazing fossil discoveries, had my picture in the LA Times, been on NPR, and be working with a TV producer to put together a documentary series about paleontology. It’s a dream come true.”

This discovery of a lifetime has its roots in a lifelong love. 

“The proboscideans, [which includes elephants, mammoths, and mastodons], have captivated me since I was seven years old, and to find proboscidean bones as our very first fossil specimens on the job was unreal. I couldn’t have imaged a better first discovery.”

For Leger, preserving LA’s prehistoric past goes hand-in-hand with building its future. 

“I’ve been told I’m the closest thing to a time-machine people have encountered. But paleontology is also the closest thing to a crystal ball. Everything we can learn about extinctions, environmental factors, and climate change can help us look into the future of what is to come.”

Last edited 1/10/2018 8:13:55 AM

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