Biology department chair Wendy Binder and a team of intercollegiate researchers have been awarded a three-year collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation to study Late Pleistocene megafauna at the Rancho La Brea tar pits. Loyola Marymount University is the lead institution for the $742,000 grant, which includes researchers from several universities and the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, along with LMU undergraduate students and a postdoctoral scholar.
Professor Binder is a longtime research associate at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum in Los Angeles, focusing primarily on the functional morphology of large carnivores such as dire wolves and sabertooth cats. The grant will allow her and her collaborators to study five species of large mammals prevalent during the Late Pleistocene, a critical time in Earth’s history that includes major events such as the end of the last Ice Age, the arrival of humans in North America, and an extinction that killed two thirds of the large mammals on the continent.
“The grant itself is designed to put together a vast amount of data about what went on in the last 10,000 to 40,000 years at Rancho La Brea,” said Binder, noting that because the museum’s fossil collection is so extensive, the results can be extrapolated to a much larger area. “One reason that Rancho La Brea is so amazing and special is because of the asphalt deposits, or ‘pits’. So many individuals were trapped and those fossil bones were well preserved. It lets us get a much better picture in terms of not just what happened in Los Angeles but in North America.”
A substantial portion of the grant will be used to radiocarbon date fossil samples from multiple pits, an expensive process that will significantly contribute to existing data. “Radiocarbon dating is the central piece, because without it there’s a lot of conjecture,” said Binder. “We’re heavily expanding the dating in each of these pits across different species and over time. We can then incorporate those findings with what we know about climate, population dynamics and food chains to be able to tell a much more complete story about what was going on during that critical timespan.”
Four undergraduate biology students will assist Binder with her research at the museum, each summer, earning stipends and continuing their research during the school year. “We’re training students to thoroughly engage in the scientific method,” said Binder. “There are some students that have been doing research for years and some students that have never done any research at all. So it really is a very diverse group of students and they all bring different backgrounds and skill sets to the table.”
After the research is published, it will be available to the museum and the public. “All of our morphological data, all of our isotopic data, our radiocarbon data —it’s all going to be public,” said Binder. “We volunteered that, and we’re very happy to do it because it’s a public museum and it should be available to everybody. That’s part of the goal.”