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Construction of a rail line in L.A. is unearthing a bunch of 'rare' fossils

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Los Angeles is trying to "build the future," but it keeps running to the past.

Construction workers of the new Metro Purple Line extension keep discovering rare fossils from the Ice Age as they excavate.

Anytime you find a fossil, you’re incredibly lucky.
Ashley Leger, paleontologist
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Two ladies stand next to a large mammoth bone that was discovered at the construction site of the Metro Purple Line extension.

“Fossils are rare everywhere," says paleontologist Ashley Leger, who has been on-site for some of excavations. "We estimate that less than one percent of life on earth actually fossilizes. So anytime you find a fossil, you’re incredibly lucky.”

Some of the fossils are of Ice Age mammoths that roamed the Earth more than 10,000 years ago, according to Cogstone, an environmental consultant that's working with L.A Metro to make sure any fossilized remains are preserved and handled properly.

We’ve got all these large classic Pleistocene fauna that are just amazing to think about here in Los Angeles.
Ashley Leger, paleontologist

“By far, our most famous fossil is Hayden, our mammoth skull. It’s a juvenile individual in beautiful condition, with both of its tusks still intact," said Leger.

Hayden.jpg
This is the large mammoth skull that was found. The things that look like the bottom of shoes are its teeth.

And that's not all.

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“We have found another mammoth tusk, a mastodon tooth, a camel’s arm bone, horse ankle, bison vertebrae," says Leger. "We’ve got all these large classic Pleistocene fauna that are just amazing to think about here in Los Angeles.”

Camelops hesternus radioulna.jpg
The forearm bone of an ancient camel. Paleontologist Ahsley Leger says camel bones are very rare in L.A.

Paleontologists say they expected to find fossils because the new rail line is so close to the La Brea Tar Pits, an area of natural asphalt that has preserved the bones of animals over the years. But they didn't expect to find this many, just 80 feet below street level.

This isn't the first time construction of a Metro line has turned up fossils. In May 2017, bones belonging to an ancient sloth and bison were discovered during excavation for the LAX/Crenshaw Line.

It's California law to have scientists present at major excavations like this one, so that's why Leger and her team have been at the construction site everyday, for about 18 hours a day.

Excavating mammoth skull.jpg
Ashley Leger (yellow vest) and Bethany Ader (orange vest) excavating the mammoth skull underground.

"If you were to find something similar to what we found in, say, Iowa," says Leger, "they are legally allowed to bulldoze that, and it does not have to be preserved for the citizens.”

Once excavating is done in the next couple of years, L.A. Metro says the fossils will go to either the La Brea Tar Pits or the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

“These are nonrenewable resources," says Leger. "Once these fossils are gone, they are gone forever.”

Related stories on Circa:
Newly discovered fossils debunk longstanding ideas about Homo sapiens origins
Scientists have found the first fossilized dinosaur brain
The fossil of an icthyosaur, the closest thing to the Loch Ness monster, has been revealed

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