Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A 9-Year-Old Tripped, Fell and Discovered a Million-Year-Old Fossil


Photo

Jude Sparks sitting beside the fossilized remains of a Stegomastodon. Credit Peter Houde

Jude Sparks was only 9 years old when he made a remarkable paleontological discovery.
While out for a walk with his family in Las Cruces, N.M., in November, Jude had been running to hide from his younger brothers when he tripped and fell. He found himself face to face with something that, he said, looked like “fossilized wood.”
“It was just an odd shape,” Jude, now 10, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I just knew it was not something that you usually find.”
It looked like a massive jaw, and Jude’s younger brother Hunter thought it belonged to a cow skull. His parents, Michelle and Kyle Sparks, thought it resembled the remains of an elephant. So they took a picture of the object to investigate further.
“When we went home, we were trying to research,” Ms. Sparks said. “It didn’t match perfectly with elephants, so then we said, O.K., I guess it was something else.”

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Dr. Peter Houde, a biology professor at New Mexico State University, sitting with the Sparks brothers during the excavation of the fossilized skull of a Stegomastodon in Las Cruces, N.M., in May. Credit Peter Houde

They sent an email to a biology professor at nearby New Mexico State University, Peter Houde. He recognized the find almost immediately: These were the remains of a long-extinct Stegomastodon, and Jude had tripped over its fossilized tusk.
Continue reading the main story
Dr. Houde said he gets calls and emails about potential finds from time to time — often, they amount to nothing much. But this time, it was different.
“This is really very unusual to find,” he said, explaining 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. After months of arranging a team, getting money 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.
Some have described Jude’s find as a dinosaur discovery, but it’s not. The Stegomastodon was an elephantine creature — not a mastodon, but similar in appearance — whose existence was relatively recent. It walked the earth within the last few million years and may have even been hunted by humans.
NYT

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