What looked like a pile of weirdly gray rocks was actually something far more significant: a fossil dating back to the dinosaurs, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports. Jeff Dornbusch, a museum volunteer, noticed the gray mound while hiking in New Mexico's brown desert landscape more than ten years ago, but couldn't relocate it until 2012. Once two experts confirmed the discovery—a turtle of the genus Adocus, from the Cretaceous Period 146 to 65 million years ago—a team began the delicate process of removing it. Soon they were finding a piece of spine amid the shell fossil; then they applied plaster to the 2.5-foot diameter chunk of dirt and began transporting it to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History for display. How much remains of the prehistoric creature is unknown.
"It just looked like a pile of gray rocks out here," says Dornbusch. "I never really knew this area as a place for marine fossils." But the rocky soil, mesquite bushes, and desert grass in southern New Mexico was "a swampy, near-shore environment" tens of millions of years ago, a fossil expert says. In fact, the Natural History museum in Albuquerque has some 25,000 fossils that are protected by federal law. So Dornbusch was smart: Those who don't report such finds can "face stiff penalties," the Sun-News notes. Another unlikely find: An amateur paleontologist in Argentina discovered a 500,000-year-old giant ground sloth on his property that, amazingly, still has its skull and teeth intact (which will enable experts to decode the extinct creature's DNA), Tech Times reports. (Read about a rare mammoth find that's now underwater.)