Question Sheet: South America’s sticky tar pits


Before reading:

  1. What is asphalt and how does it form?
  2. What is a fossil?
  3. Do you know what has been pulled out of Los Angeles’ La Brea tar pits?
  4. How do you think those animals got in there?

During reading:

  1. Why are scientists interested in what has been trapped by the South American

    tar pits?

  2. What are menes and how do they form?
  3. How old are some of the most ancient critters trapped in the South American

    asphalt deposits?

  4. Some tar pits lie near Panama. Why does their geographic location

    particularly interest scientists? (Hint: Picture the placement of the Panama


  5. Describe the types of environments that had existed prior to the development

    of a tar pit at some of these South American sites.

  6. By how many years do these pits extend the fossil record in South


  7. How do the fossils in these pits differ from the fossils people usually find

    on land, such as of a dinosaur?

After Reading:

  1. Why do scientists care about what animals roamed Earth thousands or even

    millions of years ago?

  2. Explain why you would like to observe scientists extracting fossils from one

    of these tar pits — or why you wouldn’t. Pick an answer that doesn’t involve:

    “Because it’s yucky!”

  3. What might the fossils suggest about evolution and where particular families

    of species come from?


  1. Like dinosaur fossils, many of the remnants being pulled out of tar pits

    point to the existence of animals that no longer roam our planet. Many resemble

    existing types of animals. What argument for evolution, if any, can you make by

    contrasting the animals trapped in tarry asphalt versus species alive today?

  2. Would the asphalt in tar pits make a good fuel? Why or why not?
  3. Study the countries where South American tar pits occur. What about them

    might help explain why these fossil storage sites went unexplored for so long?

  4. Asphalt, the tarry material in these pits, is also used in road building.

    Venezuela has many natural asphalt deposits. Indeed, the United States imports

    much of its asphalt from there. But Venezuela’s government has recently

    threatened to cut off supplies of asphalt to the United States. If that

    happened, what effects do you think this could have on your



  1. Write a small poem about what gets trapped by or pulled out of tar pits.
  2. Write three paragraphs explaining what you’d do if you stumbled across one

    of these tar pits while walking through a woods, and what you think might be in