As bachelor parties go, one held by a group of buddies recently at a New Mexico lake wasn't anything like the 1984 movie starring Tom Hanks, as they discovered a museum-quality fossilized ancestor of the modern elephant, complete with tusks!
The young men from Albuquerque, celebrating the forthcoming marriage of a friend, were chilling out at a popular southwest New Mexico recreation area when they made an unintended contribution to natural history.
The guys were reportedly hiking along a beach at Elephant Butte Lake State Park—ironically named for an island formation resembling a pachyderm—when they spied an unusual formation protruding from the sand. After they dug a little deeper, they saw what appeared to them to be a well-preserved elephant skull. Doing the right thing, they snapped photos with their smartphones and contacted park authorities, as well as the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Their discovery turned out to be a fossilized stegomastadon, which stood 9 feet tall and weighed about 9 tons when it lived in a decidedly different Rio Grande Valley some 3.5 million years ago.
The beach area was secured until state archaeologists and other officials arrived to meticulously unearth the 1,000-pound skull, wrap it in protective burlap and plaster of Paris, and cautiously lift it from its ancient resting place.
The scientists at the scene—when your intrepid Headline Hunter reporter arrived Thursday, June 12—were positively giddy over the find, if you can call a scientist "giddy." The upper portion of the skull was virtually intact, with full tusks, but without a lower jawbone fossil.
"This mastodon find is older than the woolly mammoth that trod the Earth in the Ice Age," said paleontologist Gary Morgan, who directed excavation at the site. Morgan said it could be one of the best preserved of the species ever discovered in the United States.
"This is far and away the best one we've ever found," he said. "Maybe the only complete ‘stego' ever found in New Mexico."
The fossilized remains were transported to the state museum in Albuquerque, where the skull will be cleaned, studied and dated. It's hoped that someday it will be displayed for public viewing.