When Antonia Gradillas and his friends set off for a hike in New Mexico to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding they were probably expecting a certain amount of craziness – but certainly not the discovery of a three-million-year-old elephant skull.
The group chanced across the archaeological wonder in Elephant Butte Lake State Park 150 miles from the city of Albuquerque after seeing a tusk sticking out from the ground.
“As we were walking we saw a bone sticking out about one or two inches from the ground,” Gradillas, 33, told ABC news. He and his friends started digging and soon uncovered another tusk, then a row of teeth and a massive cranium
Gradillas suspected that the skull might belong to a woolly mammoth and called a friend who worked in a museum for more advice.
The pair then got in touch with Gary Morgan, a paleontologist with the nearby New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, who rushed to the scene the next day after seeing pictures of the find.
Morgan announced that the skull belonged to a stegomastadon; a prehistoric ancestor of the modern elephant that predated the woolly mammoth and would have lived and roamed in the area some three million years ago.
Stegomastadon look very similar to today’s elephants but have a more squat and weighty build. The creature stood about nine feet tall and weighed more than six tons, with a pair of tusks that grew as long as 3.5-metres.
"This is far and away the best one we've ever found," said Morgan, noting how the river sediment must have quickly preserved and fossilized the creature. "This may be one of the most complete [stegomastodon skulls] ever found – anywhere."
The skull is awaiting transport back to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where Morgan said it would be invaluable to researchers thanks to its pristine condition.
“This is the coolest thing ever,” said Gradillas. “Some people with PhDs in this field might not even have this kind of opportunity. We were so lucky.”