Near the French town of Toulouse in 2014, a humble farmer stumbled upon something farmers almost never stumble upon in their entire lives: a giant four-tusked skull.
So, what did he do? Well, he didn't call the press. He didn't call any experts, either. Instead, he simply kept the fossil to himself because he didn't want any unwanted attention on his farm. Worse, he didn't want his land trespassed by amateur fossil hunters.
Ultimately, though, he relented. After keeping the fossil under wraps for a couple of years, the farmer finally got in touch with the Toulouse Natural History Museum, who only realized how significant it is when it actually went to see the discovery.
"It was only when we went there, in 2017, that we realised the significance of the discovery," the museum's management reported, as per Phys.org.
Gomphotherium Pyrenaicum Fossil
Upon closer investigation, researchers concluded that the bones belonged to a long-extinct relative of the elephant called Gomphotherium pyrenaicum, which roamed the area about 11 to 13 million years ago.
Unlike modern elephants, these creatures had an extra set of tusks jutting out their lower jaw. These were flatter than the upper ones and were possibly used for digging for roots, as Science Alert reports. Little is known about this species of Gomphotherium in the fossil record, with only a few teeth uncovered around 150 years ago in the same area. The farmer's discovery is the first complete skull, which makes it a significant find among paleontological circles.
"We're putting a face on a species which had become almost mythical," according to museum curator Pierre Dalous.
The next step is to extract the fossil from its hardened sediment, a process that could take months of intricate scraping and chipping. Researchers are trying to find the rest of the animal's body in the surrounding area, but have come up empty-handed thus far.
Private Fossil Collection
In any case, the farmer who eventually surrendered the fossil to experts should be lauded, because there's a growing problem of private collectors currently. Some amateur fossil hunters, when they find artifacts, keep it for themselves. A number of countries have laws that prohibit this act, including Brazil, where the sale or distribution of fossils has been illegal since several decades ago.
It's a shame when people collect fossils and don't hand it over to experts. At the hands of trained professionals, these artifacts can be studied more thoroughly, which then hopefully helps us have a better understanding of our past.