A six-year-old Michigan boy stumbled upon a paleontological treasure while out on a hike with his family in September.
Julian Gagnon was at the Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve, a spot where kids are encouraged to explore and interact with nature, when he tripped over something that looked like a huge tooth — a molar, to be exact. At first, the boy thought it was a dinosaur tooth, or possibly even a dragon’s tooth.
“I just felt something on my foot, and I grabbed it up and it kind of looked like a tooth,” Gagnon told NBC affiliate WDIV.
After a quick Google search, the family realized the tooth didn’t belong to a dinosaur. They gave the specimen to researchers at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (UMMP), which confirmed it to be the crown of a molar of a mastodon, an ancient, furry elephant-like creature that last roamed Earth some 10,000 years ago. They first appeared approximately 27 million to 30 million years ago, and could weigh up to six tonnes.
Initially, Gagnon thought he’d hit the jackpot.
“At first I thought I was going to get money,” he said. “I was going to get a million dollars.”
He then realized that he’d found a historical gem instead of a monetary windfall.
Even researchers were stunned at the discovery, which they confirm is exceptionally rare. They estimate the mastodon was young when it died, probably around 20 years old.
“I am a little jealous because mining fossils is something that I want to do every day,” said Abby Drake of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History to NBC News 18.
“The find is extremely exciting since it is hard to find a preserved fossil since, after the death, most animals are scavenged.”
Gagnon is donating the hand-sized tooth to the UMMP for further research, and the boy has potentially found his future career path. Michigan Live reports that Gagnon got a behind-the-scenes tour of the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor Research Museums Center and a meeting with paleontologists.
“I really wanted to be an archaeologist, but I think that was a sign that I’m going to be a paleontologist,” he said.