Science News

Boy Tripped Over A Million-Year-Old Fossil In New Mexico

Photo from Peter Houde

A nine-year-old boy was out walking with his family in New Mexico when he literally tripped over what turned out to be a million-year-old fossil.

Jude Sparks was running from his brothers in Las Cruces when he fell, and found himself looking at what he described as “fossilized wood.” Jude, now 10, told The New York Times,

It was just an odd shape. I just knew it was not something that you usually find.

It appeared to be a gigantic jaw, and Jude’s brother, Hunter, thought it might be a cow. The boys’ parents, Michelle and Kyle, thought it looked like elephant remains. They took a photo of the fossil and decided to do some research at home.

Michelle said, “When we went home, we were trying to research. It didn’t match perfectly with elephants, so then we said, okay, I guess it was something else.” They sent an email with the photo to Peter House, a biology professor at New Mexico State University.

Houde recognized the fossil immediately. It was part of a Stegomastodon, specifically the extinct species’ tusk. “This is really very unusual to find,” he said, explaining that prehistoric remains generally disintegrate when exposed to the elements. The Sparks happened to be at the site just after strong rains had eroded the area around the fossil.

Houde and the Sparks family revisited the remains and buried them again. Houde then arranged a team, found funds and secured a permit to excavate.

The Stegomastodon lived 1.2 million years ago, and was more of an elephant than a dinosaur. It was similar in appearance to a mastodon, and may have been hunted for food by humans.

The professor hopes to display the Stegomastodon fossil at the university. “We’re pretty remote, and people here don’t get the chance to see stuff like this unless they take a big trip,” he said. He added that he’s grateful the family contacted them. “If they had not done that, if they had tried to do it themselves, it could have just destroyed the specimen. It really has to be done with great care and know-how.”


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