How Is A Mastodon Like A Bus?: Local Transit Planning Impacts Los Angeles’ Paleontological Record

At the 7th Annual LA as Subject Archives Bazaar last month, archivist Denise Villegas participated in a “Pecha Kucha-style lightning round” highlighting each collection’s most unusual documents or artifacts. Her presentation captivated the audience, so we are now sharing it with everyone:

When I tell people that I work in the archive for Metro, the general response is something like, “Metro? Like the buses? What kind of stuff do you guys have?”

And while this is a pretty simple question, I tend to get a bit stumped while trying to answer because even though we are a physically small archive, we have a lot of material.

So usually my answer is something along the lines of, “Yes! Like the buses! We have quite a bit of stuff actually…Generally photographs, documents, ephemera, and objects documenting Metro and its predecessors.  Material that documents decision making, transit planning, and significant changes and events related to public transportation in Los Angeles.”

Our photos from around 1920 to 1950 depicting L.A’s streetcar days are frequently republished and are pretty popular online, which makes a lot of sense — it’s an interesting time period.

And usually in conversation, I stop there.

It’s a good general description of what the archive holds.

But somehow it doesn’t encompass the fact that sometimes we get things like this, which is a reproduction of a molar from mammut americanum, the American mastodon.

How is a mastodon like a bus? There is material about them in our archive.

Metro’s Red Line, the subway connecting Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles to North Hollywood, was built in three segments.

While working on segments 2 and 3, construction workers uncovered a significant amount of fossils — over 2,000 — ranging from fossilized wood, fish, small mammals, and fossils from larger mammals like the American mastodon.

Segment 2, where this molar was found, is the portion of the subway connecting MacArthur Park to the station at Hollywood and Vine and includes the short leg to Wilshire and Western, which is now known as the Purple Line.

The mastodon molar represents one of the large land mammal specimens that were recovered during construction of Segment 2.

There was also a fragment from the tusk of either a Columbian mammoth or another American mastodon, as well as bones and teeth from a western horse, a western camel, and an ancient bison.

The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, Metro’s predecessor who was responsible for construction of the subway, was aware of the potential for finding fossils before construction of Segment 2 because the surface had been geologically mapped in 1981.

Working with Paleo Environmental Associates, a plan was created in which construction of the subway would reduce as much of the negative affects on any paleontological resources as possible.

A monitor was almost always on site of construction, inspecting rock and debris exposed by earth moving as it occurred.

If the monitor discovered any specimens, he or she could divert earth moving from the site for as long as needed. Construction sites were also inspected regularly by the principal investigator of the paleontological team.

It was determined that any specimens found would be sent to recognized museum repositories to be made available for future study.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley received many of the findings. Copies of the final report were given to several other institutions.

According to archaeologist Bruce Lander who wrote the final report, the fossils found while building the subway are “one of the most important projects we’ve had in terms of providing new information and data to the scientific community.”

Prior to the recovery of these fossils, very little was known about the fossil record in Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Archaeologists and researchers were able to learn a lot more about Los Angeles as it existed millions of years ago.

For instance, the horse, bison, and mammoth were grazers, but the camel ate both grass and leaves, suggesting the area was once a savanna woodland habitat.

Plant and wood fossils also gave scientists more clues about what the climate was like, and how it changed over time. Plant fossils even provided evidence of a massive flood where Universal City station now stands.

The station art at Hollywood and Western is designed to reflect the city’s more ancient past.

It commemorates the archaeological finds and placards embedded in the station’s mezzanine walls inform the public about what was found in that area.

Reproductions of some of the fossil finds were created and are currently on display in the Metro Transportation Library.

Part of the reason I think this story is so interesting, besides the fact that everyone likes fossils, is that people generally don’t seem to regard Los Angeles as a big city for either public transportation or history and the discovery of these fossils brought both of those subjects into the news.

This subway that was meant to provide a foundation for modern rail rapid transit in L.A. and simply carry people from one point to another efficiently ended up bringing historical evidence to the present day and making completely different kinds of connections.

39 of the fish species discovered during Red Line construction had never been seen before.

By anyone.

So even though Los Angeles may not be a city best known for public transportation or its history beyond glamorous celebrities and Hollywood, those things clearly have a major role in the city.

This is obvious when you look at how the rail system has expanded since this molar was found and if you look at all the people here today who are interested in this city’s archives.

Los Angeles has a lot of interesting stories for those who choose to listen and I think it’s really great that our archive gets to be one of the city’s storytellers.