A geologic mapping project led to the finding of a 10 million-year-old fossil that's now being studied at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Dave Love, a geologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, spotted a jaw and teeth 8 feet up from the canyon floor Feb. 22 east of the visitors' center at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro. A team dug out the fossil from the steep cliff face last week.
The fossil is that of a plant-eating creature called an oreodont, which lived when what is now New Mexico was a grassland with clumps of trees along a river, much like today's African savanna, said Gary Morgan, an assistant curator at the natural history museum.
Love thought the teeth in the rock looked like they belonged to a camel. But Morgan identified the fossilized upper and lower jaw and other fragmentary fossil bones as those of an oreodont.
While camels are common in the area, no one before had ever found an oreodont there.
"The rarer the animal, the more interesting to me," said Morgan, who said the find consists of a skull, lower jaws, and part of the skeleton.
Oreodont fossils are uncommon in the Southwest, and most of those found in New Mexico in the past have been discovered around Espanola, he said.
"The Bosque del Apache oreodont is one of the most complete fossils and one of the southernmost examples of this group from New Mexico," Morgan said.
It belonged to a group of large oreodonts that resembled a cross between a pig and a camel which had large heads, small trunks, rather short legs on a longish body.
Oreodonts lived during the Miocene epoch 10 million to 15 million years ago. The fossil fragments in the Bosque del Apache area were embedded in a 10 million-year-old layer of sandstone and conglomerate.
The fossil will be added to the collection of the Museum of Natural History and Science, the state repository for fossils found on federal and state lands in New Mexico. In the future, however, the fossil or a replica could be displayed at the museum or at the visitors' center for the 57,331-acre Bosque del Apache refuge.