News Column

ABQ is new home of Elephant Butte Lake stegomastodon

August 11, 2014

By Diana Alba Soular, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.



Aug. 11--LAS CRUCES -- A 3 million-year-old stegomastodon fossil found by members of a bachelor party at Elephant Butte Lake is now part of an exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque.

The rare fossilized skull is part of the FossilWorks display, a laboratory where fossils are painstakingly prepped for research and an eventual installation, museum spokesman Randall Gann said. The public can watch staff and volunteers as they do their work.

At issue is that the process of removing the fossil from its site at Elephant Butte Lake entailed a basic excavation, which leaves dirt and rock attached, Gann said.

"They're not digging it up to the point of clearing all the rock away from it," he said of the typically excavation process. "They just want it to where you can transport it."

The discovery of the fossilized skull, which is from a prehistoric elephant-like animals, drew lots of attention from around the globe. Because of the popularity, Gann said, a decision was made to place it in the FossilWorks laboratory, bumping out another fossil.

The other option was to put it in a different prep lab, which is behind closed doors and not visible to museum visitors.

"The thing was so popular we all agreed it would be silly to have it hidden away," he said. "There are constantly people standing in front of the glass, looking at it."

In the FossilWorks room, trained volunteers will free the stegomastodon skull from sand, dirt and other minerals, Gann said.

"After 3 million years, there's a lot of cleaning to be done," he said.

There's also a plaster "jacketing" applied in the field to help protect the fossil that must be removed, Gann said. The process is time-consuming.

"It's usually about two years before anything would even go on display," Gann said.

People wanting to see the stegomastodon as it undergoes prep work can visit the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, 1801 Mountain Road, NW, Albuquerque. Museum hours are between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. seven days a week, though the facility is closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days. Admission ranges from $4 to $7 per person, based on age.

What's in a name?

Unlike a different recently announced elephant-like fossil found at White Sands Missile Range, the stegomastodon from Elephant Butte doesn't yet have a name.

It's final destination after the preparation has ended also isn't known, Gann said.

"I don't think anybody has begun to give any serious thought as to where it would end up," he said.

Could the stegomastodon eventually be displayed at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, where it was found?

There's support from some residents in that area for it return to the area, said Rolf Hechler, New Mexico State Parks regional director. At the moment, though, the state parks division doesn't have a facility big enough.

"We don't really have anything for a display that size," he said.

Still, Hechler said a five- to seven-year goal of the park is to build a new visitors center, and "something like that would be wonderful for it."

Earlier this month, WSMR announced the discovery of a mastodon fossil. Discoverers nicknamed it "Chompers." That specimen -- estimated to be about 30,000 years old -- awaits a full excavation, possibly later this year.

Another find

It was a bachelor party that stumbled across the stegomastodon in early June. Since then, another Elephant Butte State Park visitor discovered another fossil about one mile away, Hechler said. It's a tusk -- most likely also of a stegomastodon.

"It wasn't as significant as the other (find)," he said. "It wasn't in as good of shape."

The tusk was collected by an archeologist from the state parks and an archeologist from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Hechler said. Lake water levels have been low the past two years, likely contributing to the discoveries.

The lake appears to have been a stegomastodon hot spot.

"Through time, there's been about a half-dozen cases of stegomastodon (found) in that area," he said.

Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443.

If you go

What: New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

When: 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. seven days a week (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days)

Where: 1801 Mountain Road, NW, Albuquerque

Info:

$7 for adults; $6 for seniors age 60 and older; $4 for children ages 3-12

505-841-2800

http://www.nmnaturalhistory.org

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(c)2014 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Las Cruces Sun-News (NM)


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