This boy tripped and fell over a fossil. Now this professor wants to display it.

What's the best thing you've ever found on a hike? I can almost certainly guarantee that Jude Sparks has got you beat.

Jude Sparks and his amazing find. Is it uncouth to be a little jealous? Photo via Peter Houde.

In November 2016, then-9-year-old Jude Sparks was hiking with his parents and younger brothers in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. The kids had walkie-talkies and as Jude dashed away to hide from his younger brothers, he tripped and fell, plowing nearly face first into a weird looking rock.


The rock was mottled, shiny, and dark. It looked like fossilized wood, he told The New York Times. On second glance, though, he realized it wasn't wood. It was teeth.

An entire jawbone, in fact, nearly as large as Sparks himself, was half-buried in the dry, desert soil.

Sparks had stumbled across something amazing — the fossil of a gigantic ancient creature.

At first they didn't know what they were looking at. Sparks' younger brother Hunter thought it was a cow skull. His parents suspected elephant. They snapped a quick cell phone picture and, when they got home, got in touch with New Mexico State University biology professor Peter Houde.

Houde immediately recognized the bizarre jaw as part of a stegomastodon — an ancient elephant cousin and a part of a truly amazing group of animals.

The rock Sparks had tripped on was actually the tip of the elephantine creature's tusk.

A reconstruction of what the animal might have looked like. Image by Margret Flinsch/Wikimedia Commons.

Stegomastodons were not elephants, though they did look like them. They're not a type of mammoth either. Instead, they're what's known as a gomphothere, an offshoot of the elephant family tree.

The skull Sparks found was about 1.2 million years old, though other gomphotheres are known to have lived quite recently. The first people to visit North America might have even sunk their teeth into roast gomphothere steaks.

Jude's discovery turned up one of New Mexico's most complete stegomastodons ever.

Professor Houde enlisted about a dozen students to excavate the creature and bring it back to the college for examination, preservation, and hopefully, display.

"I have every hope and expectation that this specimen will ultimately end up on exhibit and this little boy will be able to show his friends and even his own children, 'look what I found right here in Las Cruces,'" said Houde in a press release. They also found the rest of the creature's skull nearby.

Professor Houde shows off the tusk and lower jaw of Sparks' find. Photo by NMSU/Andres Leighton.

Houde said Sparks' timing was critical to their find. Recent rains had washed out the soil around the fossil, letting the top of the jawbone peek out like a hidden treasure. (If you're looking for fossils yourself, after a storm is a good time to go exploring.)

Just as Sparks literally tripped over a a scientific discovery, amateurs and accidents contribute to science all the time.

Discoveries don't just happen at multimillion-dollar laboratories. They're often the result of just a keen eye and curious mind. Velcro, penicillin, and microwaves were all happy accidents.

Of course, it was good that Sparks left the actual excavation up to professionals. Fossils can be surprisingly fragile. Plus, the skull was technically on private land, so the university had to work out permit rights before digging.

It just goes to show, though, if you keep your eyes open, you never know what you'll find right under your feet.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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