While hiking in the Las Cruces desert in New Mexico a 9-year-old boy tripped over a rock (or he thought so). The rock is not thought to be a 1.2-milliong-year-old Stegomastodon skull.
“I was running farther up, and I tripped on part of the tusk,” Jude Sparks, now 10, who was hiking in the desert with his parents and brothers, 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.”
Stegomastodon is a prehistoric ancestor of mammoths and elephants. It belongs to the scientific family of Gomphotheriidae. Some of them had four tusks – the upper pair curved downward and outward. The lower pair (Spatula shaped).
Stegomastodon has only two upward –curving tusks also called chin tusks. The chin tusks grew downward from the upper jaw.
After they realized that Jude has stumbled upon millions of years old tusk, his family contacted Peter Houde who is a biology professor at NMSU who is also the curator-in-charge at the university’s The Vertebrate Museum.
“A stegomastodon would look to any of us like an elephant,” Houde said in a 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 only the second complete skull found in New Mexico.”
Stegomastodon and mastodon might have looked the same but they belong to different family groups.
Ross MacPhee, curator professor of Mammalogy/Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City said “The American mastodon, Mammut americanum, is a mammutid and in a different family group,” Macphee told Live Science. He also said that Stegomastodon fossils are quite rare.
In May, the Sparks and a team of students and professors unearthed the skull.
It took months and tons of struggle to acquire the chemicals that will preserve the skull for Houde.
The weight of jaw is about 120 lbs. (54 Kilograms) and the weight of the complete skull is 0.9 metric tons. This is quite light for such huge bone. It is suggested that the animal must have been the same size of an Asian elephant, but with thicker legs.
“The upper part of the skull is deceiving. It’s mostly hollow, and the surface of the skull is eggshell thin,” Houde said. “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.”
The fossil is very fragile; the entire skull is held by sediment that holds the skull together. The moment sediment is removed around the skull it will literally fall into pieces.
Houde and his teams spent a whole week carving the skull out from the surroundings. The team also applied chemical binders to hold the piece together.
“As we were brushing away the fossil, as soon as we removed the sediment, we needed to put a type of hardener on there to preserve the structural integrity,” Danielle Peltier, a geology student at NMSU who helped with the dig, said in the statement. “Otherwise, it would just crumble after a few days being left in the sun.”
Once they completely unearthed the skull the team coated it with plaster and connected wooden braces to it for support.
The skull was then carefully lifted to be taken back to the university. The tusks and skulls will be replicated and then it will be displayed at a museum this might years though.
“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,'” Houde said.
It is a possibility that the rest of the animal’s body is preserved as well, the fact that jaw and skull was found completely intact.
Houde also added and said “The fact that we found both the skull and jaw together suggests that the bones were held together as they were deposited.”