While out for a walk with his family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in November, Jude Sparks accidentally tripped while running away from his brother. But what he fell onto was an amazing discovery.
He found himself face to face with something that, he said, looked like fossilized wood. “It was just an odd shape,” Jude, now 10 years old, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I just knew it was not something that you usually find.” Jude’s parents even though it looked like a fascinating find, so they took photographs and made an effort to research what it was their son accidentally fell onto.
They sent an email with their photos included to a biology professor at nearby New Mexico State University. Peter Houde immediately recognized the discovery as the remains of a long-extinct Stegomastodon, and Jude had tripped over its fossilized tusk.
An artist’s rendition of a Stegomastodon
Dr. Houde said he gets calls and emails about potential finds from time to time. Most often, they amount to nothing much. But this time, it was different. “This is really very unusual to find,” he said. Dr. Houde explained that prehistoric remains are so fragile that they typically disintegrate shortly after erosion exposes them to the elements. The Sparkses simply got lucky by visiting the site shortly after strong rains had exposed the fossil.
When Dr. Houde and the Sparks family visited the remains one day after Jude’s discovery, they made sure to bury them again to prevent the elements from destroying the amazing discovery. After months of arranging a team, getting the money together, and securing a permit, the skull was finally excavated in May.
The creature it belonged to lived at least 1.2 million years ago, Dr. Houde estimated. The biologist hopes to put the Stegomastodon fossil on display 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 it was “fantastic” that someone so young had stumbled across such a rare find. “We’re really, really grateful that they contacted us, because if they had not done that if they had tried to do it themselves, it could have just destroyed the specimen,” he said. “It really has to be done with great care and know-how.”
What an amazing day for a young man to actually stumble across a prehistoric fossil!
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