A farmer in the south of France struck scientific gold when he uncovered part of a giant skull on his property around two years ago. But at the time he wasn’t sure what to do with the bones, so left them hidden.
When he contacted researchers at the Toulouse Natural History Museum in September 2017, they quickly realised they were looking at something special. It was the first skull ever to be found of a mastodon species called Gomphotherium pyrenaicum.
Gomphotheria are long-extinct mammals from the order Proboscidea, which includes mammoths and elephants.
Although France has many fossil sites, this particular giant has evaded scientists for years. Until the discovery of the skull (which is complete, with four tusks), only four teeth of G. pyrenaicum had ever been found. They were unearthed in 1857, in an area near to the current-day farm, around 60 kilometres southwest of Toulouse.
“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,” says Francis Duranthon, director and curator of the museum.
“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 team worked carefully to free the bones from the earth. The skull, including upper and lower tusks, is around 1.6 metres long.
It was encased in plaster so it could be moved from the site to the museum to be studied. The plaster with the skull inside weighed 600 kilograms.
The team is still preparing the skull to make detailed studies, and no matter how excited they may be, they must go carefully.
“It is very long because the sediment is very hard – we need for example one day to remove four square centimetres of sediments close to the bone,” says Duranthon.
“We are currently removing all the sediment to reveal the skull. We will have to analyse the structure of the skull, make a lot of measurements, study the morphology of the tusks, check the presence of enamel bands on the tusk, maybe using scans to study the inner ear.”
It’s thought the skull is between 13 and 11 million years old. Unfortunately, it is too old to extract DNA from, but the team is keeping the surrounding sediment to study for information from things such as pollen.
It is unusual that the skull is unaccompanied by the rest of the animal’s body, Duranthon says. The team has dug in the surrounding area but so far have not found any other remains.
Mastodons were once spread around the world, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. They first appeared during the Miocene epoch and continued until around 11,700 years ago.
Lydia Hales is a science writer and editor based in Melbourne Australia.
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