Let’s face it: anyone who saw Indiana Jones as a kid wants to be an archaeologist on some level, and we’d all like to be palaeontologists after seeing Jurassic Park. But it turns out you don’t actually have to go to school for it.
Even nine-year-old kids can sometimes get an early start on opening up the past for the rest of us, as a lucky kid in New Mexico recently found out. And he wasn’t even on an expedition — he was just out for a walk with the family.
The kid in question is an American by the name of Jude Sparks, who was just minding his own business when he stumbled across something that immediately struck him as being out of the ordinary.
To his credit, he immediately thought it looked like “fossilised wood”, in his words (but just to be clear, wood usually doesn’t fossilize — it petrifies. Although it can appear in the fossil record).
The family took a quick photo and had the idea to send it to a palaeontologist. And it turns out the discovery was something much cooler. I mean, unless you’re a huge fan of petrified wood — it was actually the fossilised skull of an extinct animal known as a Stegomastodon.
The name hints at a hybrid, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s still just as amazing though — the Stegomastodon is a massive pre historic tusked mammal.
That’s probably a lot cooler than whatever you found as a nine-year-old, which was more than likely just a discarded pack of smokes in the park, or possibly your friend’s dad’s dirty magazines.
The paleontologist involved in the find ensured that their discovery was investigated, earning young Jude a claim to fame as one of the youngest amateurs every to make a major paleontological discovery.
And it is major — these things don’t just pop up every day. That’s because preserved Stegomastodon specimens usually disintegrate more or less immediately upon exposure to the elements. The Sparks family just had the good fortune to stumble upon it at a good time, probably right after the remains were exposed by erosion in the area.
So how old is thing? More than a million years old, in fact. Not bad for a random find on a casual stroll.
So keep your eyes open the next time you’re out walking around in a wild area after some heavy rain or another erosion-inducing event. Because evidence of earlier life forms is buried all around us — it just takes a bit of curiosity, and of course a palaeontologist who is willing to follow up on an amateur claim.
As for that last part, don’t hesitate to reach out if you find one. In the words of Dr Peter Houde, the palaeontologist who helped out with the find:
We’re really, really grateful that they contacted us, because if they had not done that, if they had tried to do it themselves, it could have just destroyed the specimen.
Well done, young Mr Sparks.
Lead image: NY Times