The Sparkses simply got lucky

Monday, July 24th, 2017

While out for a walk with his family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 9-year-old Jude Sparks tripped over something unusual:

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.

Jude Sparks with Stegomastodon Jaw

“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.”

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.

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.


  1. Harper's Notes says:

    The Las Cruces area is rich in fossils. It used to on the eastern edge of a land mass (now mostly the Rocky Mountains) next to the inland ocean down through the center of what is now the United States. Rich with life. Now it’s more of a desert climate, which probably helps preserve the fossils. The nearby Elephant Butte Park (huge area) campgrounds station has some general information, which is where I first really heard about it. Las Cruces is an interesting area. If I recall, it’s the second largest city in New Mexico after Albuquerque. It has the main agricultural college, which is really quite good. Nearby is Branson’s attempt to get the commercial space launch industry growing.

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