A ten-year-old boy has accidentally unearthed the skull of an ancient creature that has been buried in the desert for over one million years.
Jude Sparks was hiking with his family in the Las Cruces desert, New Mexico, when he tripped over part of the stegomastodon tusk that was protruding from the ground.
Sparks said: “My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I looked farther up and there was another tusk.”
The family reported the exciting find to Professor Peter Houde at the the New Mexico State University, after previously having watched him discuss a similar Mesquite quarry find on YouTube.
Houde was able to reveal to the family that the bones were in fact the one-tonne head of a stegomastodon, who walked on earth nearly 1.2 million years ago.
“A stegomastodon would look to any of us like an elephant...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,” said Houde.
Despite being largely intact, the team were cautious to warn other members of the public about how difficult it is to preserve these fossils once they are out of the ground.
“The upper part of the skull is deceiving. 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.
In fact, without a special chemical hardeners being applied, that act like plastic, the bones would have crumbled within a few days of being left in the sun.
“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,” said Houde.
The landowner was also keen to keep the discovery site a secret from the public, so this made the process even more lengthy.
Despite these obstacles, Houde told other families that digging up the fossils themselves is dangerous because they are often radioactive.
“As you can imagine, when people find out about these things, they might be tempted to go out there and see what they might find themselves and tear up the land or they might hurt themselves. To be quite honest, all these fossils from this area are radioactive and especially for children, not something you would want in your home,” he said.