Jude Sparks was hiking in the New Mexico desert back in November with his parents and playing with walkie-talkies with his brothers when he made an accidental discovery.
The little boy was running farther up when he tripped on part of a tusk, which turned out to be a rare and largely intact 1.2 million-year-old stegomastodon skull.
Ice-Age Fossil Discovery
“My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I looked farther up and there was another tusk,” recalled Sparks, now age 10.
The boy simply knew it wasn’t an ordinary find. While his younger brother Hunter believed it was a cow skull, their parents thought the discovery looked a lot like an elephant.
The family then got in touch with New Mexico State University professor Dr. Peter Houde, having seen his YouTube video interview on a similar fossil found years ago. Houde was quick to recognize it: the remains of a long-gone stegomastodon, with Sparks tripping over its fossilized tusk.
“This is really very unusual to find,” Houde said, adding that while he frequently received calls and emails about potential fossilized finds, this one was entirely different.
Houde explained that so far, Sparks’ Ice-Age fossil discovery may only be the second intact skull found in the state. The family got lucky to visit the site that revealed the fossil after episodes of strong rain.
He estimated the jaw to weigh around 120 pounds, and the entire skull as little as one ton. This skull is actually delicate: it is mostly hollow, its surface thin as eggshell.
The biology professor and the family visited the fossil a day after they found it, and following months of securing permits and taking care of the logistics, the skull was finally excavated last May.
The jaw and two pieces of tusk, on the other hand, were previously taken to the Vertebrate Museum at the university.
The stegomastodon — a creature that lived at least 1.2 million years ago — wasn’t a dinosaur, and in fact existed relatively recently that it may have been hunted by humans. In contrast, dinosaurs existed during the Mesozoic era, which came to an end around 66 million years earlier.
The study and reconstruction of the stegomastodon’s fossil will take years to be done, but it will eventually be on public display.
Applauding the Sparks family’s move to contact a scientist regarding the precious find, Houde encouraged others to also establish contact with experts instead of doing the digging on their own.
“If [the Sparks] tried to do it themselves, it could have just destroyed the specimen,” he said.
In 2014, a bachelor’s party at the Elephant Butte Lake State Park in the state led a group of friends to stumble on an ancient elephant fossil.