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Sensational find

Fossil elephant skull brought to light

Munich, 08/06/2012

The latest significant fossil found around Eichstätt comes from a sand pit, where an LMU researcher and members of the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology have uncovered the well-preserved skull of a Miocene elephant.

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The newly discovered skull of an elephant comes from the molasse sediments of the Miocene Period, and is approximately 10-15 million years old. The fossil was located less than a fortnight ago. “Every so often I come back to explore the sandpits in the vicinity of Eichstätt,” says LMU paleontologist Privatdozent Dr. Christoph Mayr. “On this particular occasion, my attention was drawn to an exposed fragment of bone. Further excavation revealed that it was part of a skull, which we recovered and brought to Munich for conservation and scientific examination last weekend.”

The new specimen probably belongs to the genus Gomphotherium, and although many museums, including the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology, house Gomphotherium remains, the new find is significant in two respects. The fossil is remarkably well preserved – although the elements forming the back of the skull are missing– and it retains all the teeth, including the tusks. “It is not unusual to find fossils in molasse deposits,” says Mayr, “but one mostly comes across snails or single elephant teeth.”

Anything but robust
Skulls, on the other hand, are extremely rare in these sediments, either because they were fragmented before they could be buried or disintegrated during gravel and sand mining before being recognized as fossils at all. The new skull is also very fragile, and is surprisingly small – the conserved part of the skull is only about 85 cm long. “Skeletons of members of this genus are known, and it is clear that the adults were about as big as modern elephants,” Mayr explains. “We assume that the new specimen comes from a juvenile specimen; if so, it could give us valuable insights into the ontogenetic development of Miocene elephants.”

Before any further information can be gleaned from the new fossil, however, it must be carefully removed from the block of plaster in which it is now encased, and then the skeletal elements must be chemically consolidated to protect them. So far, only a single tusk has been freed from the surrounding matrix, and preparation of the complete specimen will take weeks. “Only then can we really begin to study the fossil and its geological context, and that task will take months to complete,” says Mayr. One thing, however, is already clear: the skull of this young Gomphotherium is an important scientific discovery. suwe

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