Afarmer in the south of France stumbled across the first ever skull of a giant, four-tusked ancestor of the elephant but failed to inform palaeontologists for almost three years because he didn’t want any “bother” from fossil hunters.
The unnamed farmer struck scientific gold when he unearthed the remarkably intact skull – a unique specimen – of the Pyrenean mastodon, Gomphotherium pyrenaicum, a relative of elephants and mammoths that roamed the area millions of years ago.
The only previous proof of its existence was the discovery of four teeth belonging to one individual found in 1857 in an area near the farm, around 40 miles southwest of Toulouse.
Unsure what to do with the bones, he finally contacted the Toulouse natural history museum, telling them he had failed to call earlier because he didn’t want to be “bothered” by any fossil fans.
“Today, we are putting a face to a species that had become almost mythical. We now have a complete skull and this will allow us to clarify the anatomy of this species,” said Francis Duranthon, director and curator of the museum.
The skull, including upper and lower tusks, is around 1.6 metres long.
“I’ve been looking for this species for 35 years, and my professor – he’s dead now, but he was looking for it for 50 years,” Mr Duranthon told Cosmos magazine.
“It is a fantastic discovery. A complete skull with the mandibula is very rare. And for this species, it is the only one in the world. It confirms the existence of large mastodons in this part of Europe 11 million years ago.
“For us, all the team and me, it’s a great achievement after 160 years of intensive research in the field.”
The entire skull was encased in plaster and the half-ton weight moved from the site to a laboratory.
“It is stuck in rock, so we have to scrape it centimetre by centimetre. We’ve still got another six to nine months of work to go,” said Mr Duranthon.
The skull is thought to be between 13 and 11 million years old – too ancient to have its DNA extracted. The body has not been found.
Different types of mastodons roamed the Earth for millions of years, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. They first appeared during the Miocene epoch (23.03 to 5.3 million years ago) and only died out completely around 11,700 years ago.