LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Luck came not once, but twice for Jude Sparks. The then-9-year-old was lucky enough to trip not on a rock, or a tree root, but on a 1.2-million-year-old fossil when trying to dash away from his brothers on a November desert hike with his family.
And as New Mexico State University biology professor Peter Houde explains to the New York Times, Jude was lucky to have been at the Las Cruces, NM, site just after a storm had exposed the fossil—but before the exposure reduced the specimen to nothingness.
At first he and his brothers thought it might be from a cow; his parents thought it looked more elephant-like. Their research didn’t turn up a clear answer, so they turned to Houde, who identified it as part of a stegomastodon skull.
Jude’s parents actually weren’t that far off. The Times notes the stegomastodon was not a dinosaur (non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out way more than 1.2 million years ago, after all), and Houde says in a university release that the creature “would look to any of us like an elephant.” Fox News gets more scientific, explaining they’re “a primitive group of proboscideans (‘elephantoids’) from which modern elephants evolved.” The skull was excavated in May and marks what Houde says may be just the second-such full skull found in the state.
Houde credits the Sparkses for their restraint in not digging up the bones but rather consulting a professional. He adds, “To be quite honest, all these fossils from this area are radioactive and especially for children, not something you would want in your home.”