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Dogs Join the Search for Amelia Earhart’s Remains

The quest to find Amelia Earhart’s final resting place just got a little more interesting, as four National Geographic-sponsored bone-sniffing border collies set sail for a remote Pacific island.

The famed aviatrix and her navigator were last seen on July 2, 1937, soaring into the sky above New Guinea. We know where they were headed—Howland Island, a mere speck in the ocean—but we don’t know where they went. There are plenty of theories, of course. Some people think Earhart was actually a spy who went into hiding after completing her final mission. Others think she was captured.

But some of the most compelling evidence comes from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll located about 1000 miles north of Fiji. The island is just 350 nautical miles southwest of Howland Island. At low tide, its exposed reef could have made a welcoming spot to land an ailing plane. Most importantly, we’ve found bones there before; the British government recovered 13 human bones there in 1940.

Lagoon on the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro.
Angela K. Kepler, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those bones have since been lost, as has the precise location of where they were discovered, but archaeologists believe they know where to find more.

So the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is sending a new mission to the island, bolstered with some very special experts. Berkeley, Piper, Marcy, and Kayle all trained as remains detection dogs by the Institute for Canine Forensics.

“No other technology is more sophisticated than the dogs,” expert Fred Hiebert told National Geographic News. “They have a higher rate of success identifying things than ground-penetrating radar.” Hiebert is archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, which sponsored the collies’ involvement.

The dogs’ job is to follow the scent of human bones, then alert their human counterparts, who will excavate in a wide circle around the targeted area. It probably won’t be an easy job. Heat, vegetation, and scavengers can all throw off the scent, and Nikumaroro is sweltering, dense with greenery, and crawling with bone-cracking coconut crabs.

That last thing might not be terrible. “The crabs are our friends,” Hiebert says. It’s possible that they found the remains themselves, then dragged them back to their burrows. The dark, underground holes could actually help preserve the remains and their scent.

Hiebert and his colleagues at TIGHAR know it’s a long shot. The scent trail likely went cold ages ago, if the bones are even still there, if they ever were there at all.

“But if the dogs are successful,” Hiebert says, “it will be the discovery of a lifetime.”

[h/t National Geographic News]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9-Year-Old Boy Trips Over the Bones of a Long-Extinct Elephant Relative
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A 9-year-old boy quite literally stumbled across a new paleontological discovery when he tripped over a giant skull while hiking in Las Cruces, New Mexico in November 2016. As The New York Times reports, the fossilized bones have been identified as the million-year-old remains of a Stegomastodon, a long-extinct distant relative of the modern elephant.

It all began with a game of chase: Jude Sparks, now 10, was running from his younger brothers when he tumbled face-first over what appeared to be a giant tusk. "My face landed next to the bottom jaw," Sparks told ABC news affiliate KVIA-TV. "I look farther up and there was another tusk."

Sparks's parents thought it looked like an elephant skull; his brother, a cow skull. As for Jude himself, he eyed the oddly shaped bones, and "just knew it was not something that you usually find," he later told the Times.

The Sparks didn't dig up the bones, but they did take a cell phone picture. Later, they compared the snapshot to elephant skulls, but they weren't 100 percent identical. So to solve the mystery once and for all, the family sought the opinion of Peter Houde, a biology professor at New Mexico State University.

Houde instantly recognized the skull as that of a Stegomastodon, a creature that belonged to the animal family Gomphotheres and is a distant cousin of ancient mammoths and modern elephants. Stegomastodons roamed the Earth in the past few million years, and may have been hunted by early humans. This particular specimen is at least 1.2 million years old. Theories for the Stegomastodon's extinction include climate change or the arrival of mammoths, which may have led to a competition for food resources, according to National Geographic.

Mammoth fossils are relatively common across the western portion of North America, but only a couple hundred Stegomastadons have been found throughout the world. The Sparks had serendipity on their side, as they visited the site right after heavy rains had exposed the Stegomastodon skull.

Together, Houde and the Sparks family reburied the skull and sought permission from the landowner to excavate the find. Once they obtained a team, a permit, and funding, they got to work and dug up the skull in May.

"All of the protein is gone from these fossils, and the bone is very, very brittle and fragile," Houde told KVIA. "And as soon as the sediment is taken away from around it, it just falls apart completely on its own. So we have to use preservatives to stabilize it before we remove the sediment around it. And then build plaster and wooden casing around it to remove it safely. It's a big job."

The Stegomastodon will likely go on display at New Mexico State University, providing students, faculty, and visitors alike with an up-close view of the rare fossil.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Melting Glacier Reveals Bodies of Swiss Couple Missing Since 1942
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On August 15, 1942, Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin ventured to the meadow above their house in the Swiss Alps to milk their cows. What should have been business as usual turned into a harrowing missing-persons case when the married couple never returned. Now, nearly 75 years later, two frozen bodies that likely belonged to Marcelin and Francine have been found in the dwindling Tsanfleuron glacier near their former home, Reuters reports.

An employee at the Les Diablerets resort in Switzerland's Valais canton saw the remains near a ski lift earlier in July. The bodies, one male and female, were perfectly preserved down to their belongings and 1940s attire. Experts believe the couple perished after falling into a crevasse. Like other Alpine glaciers, the Tsanfleuron glacier has been hit hard by rising temperatures associated with climate change. The glacier finally revealed the missing bodies this summer after years of receding.

When Marcelin and Francine vanished, they left behind seven children who never gave up hope of finding them. Seventy-nine-year-old Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, the couple’s youngest child, told a local newspaper the discovery brings her a "deep sense of calm."

The bodies will now undergo DNA testing to verify their identities. Once that's taken care of, Udry-Dumoulin plans to give her parents "the funeral they deserved."

[h/t Reuters]

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