Washington: Paleontologists have discovered some ancient footprints in the Arabian Desert dating back to over seven million years which they believe could to be the world`s oldest elephant tracks.
These prehistoric footsteps -- likely the work of some 13 four-tusked elephant ancestors -- are the earliest direct evidence of how the ancestors of modern elephants interacted socially and the oldest evidence of an elephant herd, the researchers said.
"Basically, this is fossilised behaviour," study author Faysal Bibi, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin, said.
"This is an absolutely unique site, a really rare opportunity in the fossil record that lets you see animal behaviour in a way you couldn`t otherwise do with bones or
teeth," Bibi was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
The site, known as Mleisa 1, in the United Arab Emirates was then home to a great diversity of animals, including elephants, hippopotamuses, antelopes, giraffes, pigs, monkeys, rodents, small and large carnivores, ostriches, turtles, crocodiles and fish.
These were sustained by a very large river flowing slowly through the area, along which flourished vegetation, including large trees. The animals resembled those from Africa during the same time, though there are also similarities with Asian and European species of that period, the researchers detailed in the journal Biology Letters.
The trackways stretch up to about 850 feet long, making them the most extensive ever recorded for mammals, Bibi said.
The footprints cover an area of 12.3 acres -- which is equal to nine US football fields, seven soccer fields, or the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the team added.
Fossil trackways in the region have been long known to locals, and were taken to be the prints of dinosaurs or giants of ancient myth. But in January 2011, when researchers mapped the area from the air for the first time, they "realised what we had and how we could go about studying it", Bibi said.
"Once we saw it aerially, it became a much different and clearer story," said researcher Brian Kraatz at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif. "Seeing the
whole site in one shot meant we could finally understand what was happening."
"The trackways are visually stunning," said researcher Andrew Hill at the University of Poitiers in France. "It is quite obvious to anyone, without any technical knowledge, that
these are the footprints of very large animals, and to learn that they are over 6 million years old presents a visitor with the sensation of walking back in time."
The researchers noted that while these prehistoric titans were proboscideans like modern elephants, they likely looked quite different.
Of the three kinds of fossil proboscidean species in the area at that time, the one that most likely made the trackways was Stegotetrabelodon syrticus, the earliest known member of the elephant family, "which carried tusks in both its upper and lower jaws", Bibi added.