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Prehistoric Elephant Excavated near Elephant Butte Reservoir


photo: Excavation of Stegomastodon Fossil
Excavation of Stegomastodon Fossil

The skull and tusks of a stegomastodon estimated to be three million years old have been discovered at Elephant Butte Reservoir.

The fossil was found by campers and reported to New Mexico State Parks, who manage the land for recreation under an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Resource Specialist Brent Tanzy was the first Reclamation employee on the scene and quickly confirmed the visible teeth and tusk appeared to be that of a prehistoric elephant. He used a tarp and sand to quickly cover what was exposed until the area could be secured.

The fossil was excavated on June 12 and carefully covered with a special cast mixture to preserve its integrity during transport to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. It will remain there in the coming months to undergo extensive analysis. Gary Morgan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the museum, led the excavation process and described the find as more complete and better than another partial stegomastodon found in the area in 2004.

"It was almost perfect," Morgan said of the condition of this skull and tusks. He estimated from the molars that the stegomastodon was about 50 years old when it died. He also estimated it had stood about 9 feet tall and weighed about 5 tons. The skull and tusks alone likely weigh more than 500 pounds.

Reclamation Archaeologist Mark Hungerford described the discovery of this stegomastodon as a "rare and extremely important find."

photo: Stegomastodon Fossil
Stegomastodon Fossil

The area where the fossil was discovered was under water until a couple of weeks ago when irrigation began for the Rio Grande Project and lake levels began to drop.

To date, Reclamation has documented close to 180 paleontological sites on its land throughout the 17 Western states. Under the requirements of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Reclamation must protect paleontological resources on our land using scientific principles and expertise.

Crews have completed the excavation of the area. They dug a large perimeter around the skull in an effort to locate other body parts, but did not find any. Morgan explained that this is common along the Rio Grande. He said the water could have carried the skull away from the rest of the body and deposited it there.

New Mexico State Parks had increased patrols of the area to ensure that the fossil was protected until it was exhumed.  Although this find has generated much interest from the public, it is important to remember that it is a violation of federal and state law to remove archaeological and paleontological specimens from federal or state lands.

News Release


Last updated: June 17, 2014