Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
ELEPHANT BUTTE – Campers celebrating a bachelor party at Elephant Butte Lake State Park may have stumbled on to one of the most complete fossils of an ancient elephant ever found.
On Thursday, paleontologist Gary Morgan of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science was knee deep in sand as he carefully excavated what he said appears to be the skull and tusks of a 3.2 million-year-old stegomastodon, at least based on “the structure of the teeth and tusks.”
While remains of other stegomastodons have been found at the park before, “this is far and away the most complete one we’ve ever found here, and it may be the most complete one ever found of this species anywhere,” he said.
The campers who came upon the fossil on Monday contacted park officials, who immediately moved to secure the site. A decision to release water from the dam just two weeks ago dropped the water level several feet, allowing just enough of the skull to be exposed for the campers to see it, said park superintendent Kay Dunlap.
When the stegomastodon died, “it must have been covered up by the river sediments pretty quickly, and the sand apparently did a great job preserving it,” Morgan said. “It was almost perfect.”
A stegomastodon, he explained, was a shorter-legged and stocky elephant, similar to a modern Asian elephant. The fossil found at Elephant Butte was likely from an animal that was 5 to 10 feet tall, weighed about 5 tons and was 30 to 40 years old, Morgan said.
“It was the biggest animal around at the time so it didn’t have many natural predators and it probably died a natural death,” he said.
At the time, New Mexico had a warmer and wetter subtropical climate and also was home to giant tortoises, giant camels and a species of rhinoceros, he said.
Most of the fossils found at Elephant Butte have been isolated bits and pieces, consequently the chances that the rest of the elephant’s remains are in the same place as the skull and tusks are not good.
“All the limb bones and skeleton seem to be missing and probably haven’t been here for 3 million years,” Morgan said. “For all we know, the rest may never have even fossilized.”
What is clear is that a fossil that’s 3 million years old or older would not have any viable genetic material or DNA remaining, but there is still plenty to study, Morgan said.
To do that, Morgan and his team have to move it to the preparation lab at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Carefully, they dug around the specimen and cleared it of sand. Wet newspapers were then layered on it and that was covered by strips of burlap dipped in plaster. When the plaster dried, it created a protective cast, much like a doctor puts on a broken bone. This allowed the specimen, now weighing 500 to 1,000 pounds, to be lifted out of the sand by a backhoe and placed on the bed of a truck for transportation.
The process of cleaning and stabilizing the fossil will likely take several months, after which Morgan will study it, extrapolate in more detail how the animal looked in life, and then write about it.
The stegomastodon skull and tusks eventually will be placed on public display, though it’s not clear at this point where that might be.