A 9-year-old boy stumbled across a fossil while walking through the desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico. In November last year he boy, Jude Sparks, was exploring the Organ Mountains with his parents and two brothers, when he tripped over something.

The boy told El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA that he immediately revealed his finding to his brother, Hunter. The object was a 1.2-million-year-old stegomastodon skull.

Image Credit: Peter Houde
Jude Sparks next to his discovery. Image Credit: Peter Houde

The Stegomastodon were part of the animal family Gomphotheres, the prehistoric ancestors of mammoths and elephants. After the family had realized Jude tripped on a fossil, they contacted a biology professor to identify it.

9-year-old boy found the stegomastodon skull while walking through the Organ Mountains

Once Jude told his brother he found something, his brother said it was probably a “big fat rotten cow,” as he later recalled to El Paso ABC affiliate KVIA. Jude said he didn’t think it was a cow, that he knew it was something unusual.

“I was running farther up, and I tripped on part of the tusk,” Jude, now 10 years old, said in a statement from New Mexico State University (NMSU). “My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I looked farther up, and there was another tusk.”

That night, Jude’s parents contacted New Mexico State University Professor Peter Houde, who they knew when he gave a lecture on a similar subject. Houde went to the site with the Sparks family and found the entire stegomastodon skull.

Houde then secured funding, found volunteers and coordinated the digging. The Sparks family was also invited to the excavation. After a week on site, the scientists were able to dig out the fossil. Houde told National Geographic the remains were “egg-shell thin.” He added the stegomastodon would eventually be available for exhibit.

“A stegomastodon would look to any of us like an elephant,” House, who is also the curator in charge at NMSU’s The Vertebrate Museum, said in the statement. “For the several types of elephants that we have in the area, this is probably one of the more common of them. But they’re still very rare. This may be the only second complete skull found in New Mexico.”

Stegomastodon fossils are rare to find

Spencer Lucas, a curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, told National Geographic that there are more fossils in New Mexico than he’ll ever be able to count. In fact, stegomastodons had already been found in the state.

In 2014, a bachelor party encountered an almost intact fossil of the species. The New Mexico Natural History Museum collected the remains. However, finding a stegomastodon fossil is considered rare.

Lucas said that fossils such as those belonging to mammoths are relatively abundant in some areas of North America, but for some unknown reason, stegomastodons are rare to find. Lucas noted that only about 200 specimens of the animal have been discovered in the world.

Stegomastodon arizonae. Image Credit: Fran Moff
Stegomastodon arizonae skeleton at the Smithsonian. Image Credit: Fran Moff

Some experts believe the animal went extinct because of mammoths. Lucas, for instance, theorizes that ancient animals like the stegomastodon couldn’t compete with mammoths. And because both animals lived in the same surroundings, they could’ve fought for resources.

Houde, however, believes climate change could have caused the stegomastodon’s extinction. He noted they existed during a time when it was wetter and cooler, and Las Cruces is now a desert.

Stegomastodon skull will be displayed in New Mexico museum in the future

Houde has thoroughly studied the remains found by Jude. The jaw weights 120 lbs. (54 kilograms), while the complete skull weighs over a ton (0.9 metric tons), which according to Houde, is light for such a bone. Houde told Live Science that the animal was roughly the same size as an Asian elephant, but with “stockier” legs.

“The upper part of the skull is deceiving,” Houde said. “It’s mostly hollow, and the surface of the skull is eggshell thin. You can imagine an extremely large skull would be very heavy for the animal if it didn’t have air inside it to lighten it up, just like our own sinuses.”

He explained the skull was held together by the surrounding sediment. In the NMSU statement, he noted when sediment is removed from these specimens, they fall apart and turn into tiny bits. That’s why the excavation team spent over a week to retrieve the fossil, as they were carving the skull from its surroundings. They even had to applied chemical hardeners to keep the skull from falling apart.

The rest of the animal wasn’t found, although Houde believes the specimen was whole when it passed. Complete stegomastodon skeletons can be as long as 30 feet (9 meters).

Houde and his team will continue studying and reconstructing the stegomastodon skull, and they expect to display it at NMSU’s Vertebrate Museum in the future.

Source: Live Science