LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - Jude Sparks and his brothers were focused on testing their new walkie talkies in the desert around Las Cruces when one wrong step led to an amazing discovery.
Jude, 10, fell right on his face and when he opened his eyes, he was staring at the remains of a one-million-year old elephant-like creature.
"I was running farther up and I tripped on part of the tusk. My face landed next to the bottom jaw. I look farther up and there was another tusk," Jude said.
He immediately told his brother Hunter what he had found.
"Hunter said it was just a big fat rotten cow," Jude said. "I didn't know what it was. I just knew it wasn't usual."
The boys' parents were not far away riding bikes.
Rather than try to dig up the fossil themselves, the Sparks family decided to reach out to an expert. The search led them to New Mexico State University.
"That night we looked up and found Dr. Peter Houde," Jude said.
Dr. Houde is an anatomy professor who happens to have a passion for fossils.
"I've always been interested in the animals. How they are related to each other and comparative anatomies. It's been a childhood interest ever since I was Jude's age," Dr. Houde said. "I immediately recognized the importance of what it was. We went out there the very next day to have a look at it."
Jude had stumbled upon a stegomastodon fossil dating back more than a million years. The animal was an ancestor of modern elephants.
"We know that these fossils exist here underground. Somebody's house might be built right on top of them. But they don't usually survive the erosional process to get to the surface. They just decay into tiny little bits. They are actually very, very fragile," Houde said.
Jude's father had initially tried to to pick up the tusk, but it splintered a little as soon as he tried to lift it. The family knew an expert would have to be the one to uncover what was left of the stegomastodon.
"It was incredibly exciting because fossils in this condition are extremely rare. We know that they exist here but you can hardly ever find them," Houde said. " So we were very excited, but we did not know how much was there."
"The first thing we wanted to do was determine if the piece of tusk that was showing was actually connected to a skull. So we started unearthing that and as soon as we realized that it was we just buried it back up and sought out the land owner to find out if we could get permission to dig it up," Houde said.
The land owner was willing to allow Houde, the Sparks boys and some student volunteers dig up the find. However, the land owner wanted to remain anonymous, fearing others would rush to the property and start digging for their own stegomastadon.
"The skull that we found is one of the very best to have been found in New Mexico. There was one found in Elephant Butte about two years ago that did not have the lower jaw that we have on this one. But ours is missing one tusk and theirs had two broken tusks. So we are splitting hairs , which is better? But they are both extremely rare to find to a skull at all," Houde said.
Excavating the skull and tusk out of the dirt was a precarious procedure.
"All of the protein is gone from these fossils and the bone is very very brittle and fragile. 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," Houde said.
The fossil has been turned over to the university and is now being housed in the university's Vertebrate Museum while Dr. Houde continues his work to preserve it.
Jude's mother, Michelle Sparks, called the entire process an incredible journey.
"It's just been very exciting. Especially for the boys because every child dreams of finding bones and them being actually old," Sparks said.
Jude was anxious to share his find.
"I told most of my friends. Most of them didn't even believe me," Jude said.
It is quite the tale. But when Dr. Houde's work on the stegomastodon fossil is complete, he plans to allow the public to take a look for themselves.
Jude and his family are still enjoying their desert outings, and you can bet Jude is taking a closer look at where he steps, knowing what could be right under his feet.