A 10-year-old boy accidentally discovered a rare, nearly intact 1.2 million-year-old fossil while playing in the desert.
"I was running farther up and I tripped on part of the tusk," Jude Sparks told the Las Cruces Sun-News. "My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I looked farther up and there was another tusk."
What New Mexico State University students and researchers unearthed in November turned out to be a 120 pound jawbone and nearly 1-ton skull. Sparks joined them on the dig.
"A stegomastodon would look to any of us like an elephant," biology professor Peter Houde told the Sun-News. "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."
Although quite heavy, it is a delicate and deliberate process to remove sediment from around the eggshell-thin skull in order for the bone not to fall into tiny pieces, Houde said.
The excavation took about a week with 10-12 students carefully brushing dirt from the skull’s surface and also applying a chemical hardener to keep it intact.
After it was removed from its sandy crypt, the skull was coated in plaster and wood braces were placed around it. It was taken by flatbed truck to the university where it will be reconstructed and one day be in a museum.
"I have every hope and expectation that this specimen will ultimately end up on exhibit and this little boy will be able to show his friends and even his own children, look what I found right here in Las Cruces," Houd said.