What are tar-pits?« Back to Questions List

The history of tar-pits dates back to millions of years ago. It was not until the 20th century that the excavation of tar-pits first started.

Tar-pits are pools of viscous asphalt. Large amounts of asphalt occur in concentrated form in tar-pits. This is formed by seepage from petroleum deposits when crude oil seeps to the surface through the fissures in the earth’s crust. The light fraction of the oil evaporates, leaving behind the heavy tar (asphalt) in sticky pools. Also known as Bitumen, asphalt is a highly sticky, black and viscous semi solid form of petroleum. It is what is left over after the lighter components of petroleum evaporate away. It is so sticky that it can even trap large animals.


Today there are only few asphalt lakes worldwide, the well-known one at California called La Brea Tar Pits. There are other fossil-bearing asphalt deposits in Trinidad, Iran, Oklahoma, Texas, Peru, Russia and Poland. These pits were natural death traps of many animals (some of which have even become extinct) which came to the drink from the water that collected atop the asphalt pools. These animals got stuck inside the pits and cannot escape when they fall in and die of starvation, exhaustion from trying to escape or from the heat that would come from the sun. These pits have become one of the richest fossil sites which yielded more than a million fossil remains (bones) of the vanished animals.

The main application of asphalt or bitumen is for making asphalt concrete for road surfaces. Approximately 85% of the asphalt consumed in the United States is used for such road surfaces.

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