CLOSE
Original image
iStock

9-Year-Old Boy Trips Over the Bones of a Long-Extinct Elephant Relative

Original image
iStock

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]

Original image
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Divers in Michigan Discover 93-Year-Old Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Huron
Original image
iStock

On the evening of September 21, 1924, the cargo steamship SS Clifton met its end in Lake Huron while carrying a 2200-ton load of crushed stone from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to Detroit. The vessel was likely caused to sink by a gale, and the disaster resulted in the deaths of 25 crew members. Bits of wreckage were later found, but the freighter’s resting place ultimately remained a mystery. Now, more than 90 years later, the Associated Press reports that the SS Clifton’s location at the bottom of the Great Lake has been confirmed.

Scuba diver David Trotter—who’s reportedly located more than 90 Great Lakes shipwrecks—discovered the SS Clifton in September 2016, following a 30-year search. He waited to publicly share the news until his company, Undersea Research Associates, was able to investigate and document the steamship's remains last summer.

Trotter had spent decades searching for the SS Clifton, but finding it was ultimately a matter of serendipity, he says. In June 2016, Trotter and his team were surveying two wrecks—the schooners Venus and Minnedosa, which sank in 1887 and 1905, respectively—when they spotted yet another submerged ship. They logged its coordinates, but only managed to get a closer look several months later, in September 2016, during a quick dive trip.

GoPro footage confirmed that the ship in question was a whaleback steamer, a unique type of 19th century cargo steamship with low, rounded hulls, decks, and deckhouses, which were designed to cut down on water and wind resistance. “The Clifton was the only whaleback ship left in Lake Huron that hadn’t already been found,” Trotter said, according to WZZM-TV. “There was no question we had found the Clifton.”

The USS Clifton sits on its side, around 100 miles south of where some shipwreck hunters initially believed it had sunk. Its bow is shattered, likely from the collision with the lake’s bottom, while the stern, inside paneling, and architecture remain well-preserved. Divers also spotted an unopened suitcase, and signage inside the ship.

So far, there isn't any clear mechanical evidence as to why the USS Clifton sank, but Trotter's team did find “that the self-unloading mechanism was still in position,” he says. This was “an interesting discovery because we now realize that the unloading mechanism didn’t break free, causing the Clifton to have instability, resulting in her sinking.”

Trotter hopes to explore the USS Clifton’s engine room and cabins, and to bring the suitcase ashore to examine its contents. Until then, he can remain satisfied that he’s finally solved a mystery that had eluded him for much of his career.

[h/t Associated Press]

arrow
science
6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios