Boys discover ancient fossil while playing in the desert

While many experts tout the health benefits of encouraging youngsters to play outside, a pair of New Mexico brothers have demonstrated another good reason to put down the Xbox controllers: you never know when you might accidentally discover a million-year-old fossil.

As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, Jude Sparks and his brother Hunter were testing out their new walkie-talkies on a family hike in the desert near the city of Las Cruces when all of a sudden, then-9-year-old Jude tripped on a piece of rock and made the unusual discovery.

The elephant-like fossil appeared to have two large, fossilised teeth and what looked like a tusk, Jude explained. While Hunter was not impressed, dismissing it as “a big, fat rotten cow,” KVIA News said, Jude knew that it was “unusual.” He told his parents, and the family decided to reach out to New Mexico State University biology professor Peter Houde for assistance.

Houde told the Post that he receives emails from a few people each year wondering whether or not they had made an important discovery, and in most cases, the photos they send turn out to be nothing special – but that wasn’t the case here. “I mean, it was 100 percent immediately obvious that they’d either found a skull or a jaw. I could see teeth. I wrote right back to them.”

As it happens, the object Jude stumbled upon was the fossilised skull of a creature identified as a Stegomastodon – an ancient relative of the modern elephant which had an enormous pair of tusks that curved upwards, stood more than eight feet tall and lived more than one million years ago.

‘Extremely rare’ fossil somehow survived the erosion process

Jude’s find was unusual not just for the way it was discovered, but also because of the fact that the creature’s mandible and one of its tusks were exposed to the surface and somehow managed to survive the erosion process without decaying, Houde told KVIA News earlier this month.

“It was incredibly exciting because fossils in this condition are extremely rare. We know that they exist here but you can hardly ever find them. So we were very excited, but we did not know how much was there,” the biologist explained. “The first thing we wanted to do was determine if the piece of tusk that was showing was actually connected to a skull.”

Houde obtained permission from the land owner to dig up the fossil, along with a team of student volunteers and the Sparks family. The excavation process started in May (months after the fossils were initially discovered in November), and it took a crew of about a dozen workers one week to completely remove the fragile, 120-pound jaw and the rest of the skull from the ground.

“The upper part of the skull is deceiving,” Houde said in a statement. “It’s mostly hollow and the surface of the skull is eggshell thin… That makes the thing extremely fragile and the only thing holding it together is the sediment surrounding it. In fact, when the sediments are removed from the sides of them, they start to fall apart immediately and literally fall into tiny, tiny bits.”

“It has to be done carefully by somebody who knows how to go about doing it. It is a very deliberate process that takes a little bit of time,” added the NMSU biologist, who detailed the discovery and excavation process in a research paper that has been posted to his website.

Houde applauded the Sparks family for contacting him about the fossil rather than trying to remove it themselves and added that he hoped that the fossil would eventually be put on display in a museum. “I have every hope and expectation that this specimen will ultimately end up on exhibit and this little boy will be able to show his friends and even his own children, look what I found right here in Las Cruces,” he said in a statement.


Image credit: Peter Houde/New Mexico State University