About the Fishbowl Lab | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Fossil preparators and paleontologists in the Fishbowl Lab at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.

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"Zed" is our newly discovered Columbian mammoth, and the most complete mammoth skeleton we've ever found.
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Paleontology in Action!

The so-called "Fishbowl Lab" inside the Page Museum is a glass-walled paleontological laboratory that allows visitors a rare look behind-the-scenes of our museum. All the preparation of the fossils excavated in Hancock Park takes place here seven days a week. Currently, paleontologists and volunteers are working on specimens from Project 23. This includes opening plaster jackets containing the bones of 'Zed', a near-complete Columbian mammoth and preparing the fossils presently being excavated from the boxes. The Fishbowl Lab allows guests of all ages to see that our museum is far more than just exhibits, it is an active and bustling research institution.

Cleaning and polishing

When a fossil first arrives in the Fishbowl Lab, the first step in its preparation is cleaning. Volunteers use a solvent called Lenium to dissolve the hardened asphalt, allowing them to carefully clean the remaining matrix (sediment) off the bone. Occasionally, dental picks are used to dislodge particularly stubborn grains of sediment. Larger fossils, and fossils with many cavities such as skulls and vertebrae, can sometimes take several days or even weeks to clean completely. Very delicate specimens — for instance, skulls with intact sinus cavities or very fragile bird bones — are soaked in solvent overnight to prevent breaking. After the bone is clean, its matrix is placed into a jar of solvent to soak for at least a week. The matrix will eventually be rinsed and sorted through for microfossils. The bone itself is left out to dry for several days, and then polished. Every fossil from Rancho La Brea retains its unmistakable brown hue even after cleaning.

Microfossil sorting

After the matrix surrounding each fossil has soaked in solvent for several days, it is rinsed through a mesh screen and set out to dry. It is then dry sifted through another screen to eliminate fine-grained clay, which is unlikely to produce fossils. However, small intact samples are sometimes set aside for ultra-microfossil sorting at a later date. Volunteers will peer through large magnifying glasses and sort through the matrix, grain by grain, looking for the remains of plants, insects, ostracods (tiny freshwater crustaceans), shells and tiny bones. Though microfossil sorting is the last step in fossil preparation, it is the first thing new volunteers do when they start work in our lab.  

Final Curation

After a fossil has been cleaned and all its matrix has been sorted, it is time to give everything a number. This system of cataloging all the fossils ensures that their data are permanently retained ( i.e., where the fossils came from and their correct identifications). All the specimens are captured first in a paper catalog and later in an electronic database.

Volunteers and the Fishbowl Lab

If you visit our Fishbowl Lab, you may see volunteers working on a wide array of projects. Some volunteers spend hours repairing delicate bird fossils or sorting through boxes of vertebrae, separating sabertoothed cat from North American lion, Still others can be found typing on laptops and working on our ever-growing database. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please read our volunteer requirements before inquiring. We'd love to have you!