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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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Skeleton of the Pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy
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The skeleton of a famous pirate dead for more than three centuries may have been discovered. This week, researchers in Massachusetts announced they'd found a human skeleton near the wreck of a ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717—and they think it just might be the remains of New England's greatest pirate, Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy.

Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Following the War of Spanish Succession, Bellamy relocated to Massachusetts in 1715.

It's said that Bellamy fell in love with a local beauty named Maria Hallett, whose parents didn't want their daughter marrying a lowly sailor. This bit of folklore might be baseless—although historians do know that a young woman with that name did live in Eastham, Mass. at the time. But in any case, Bellamy soon left the colony to pursue a get-rich scheme.

He and a friend had learned that a treasure-laden Spanish fleet had recently sunk near the Florida Keys, so the duo promptly headed south. After failing to salvage any loot, Bellamy turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work: He captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. Forbes magazine has calculated that all the loot Bellamy seized would be worth $120 million in modern U.S. dollars.


Gold recovered from wreck of the Whydah.
Theodore Scott, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Despite the dark nickname bestowed by others—and his considerable net worth—Bellamy hated wealthy elites with a passion and liked to call himself the "Robin Hood of the Sea".

The flagship of Bellamy's fleet was the 300-ton Whydah, a former British slave vessel. In 1717, the pirate took the ship up to New England. Then, on April 26, 1717, a wicked storm sank the Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet. Most of the crew—including Bellamy—went down with it.

In 1984, marine explorer Barry Clifford and his diving team found the ship's wreckage. More than 200,000 artifacts from the site have since been taken ashore. To give them a proper home, Clifford established the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth in 2016.

This past November, researchers at the museum found part of a human skeleton inside a hardened block of sediment they'd taken from the Whydah's general area a few years ago. The slab also contained a belt, some cufflinks, and—most interestingly—a pistol. According to an Associated Press report, this gun is believed to have been Bellamy's.

Forensic scientists at the University of New Haven plan to compare DNA from the bones against that of a living Bellamy descendant in England. Whether the skeleton turns out to be the famous captain's or somebody else's, though, it'll most likely be interred—eventually. On February 19, the bones will be on display during a press conference.

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