Washington: Scientists have discovered some ancient footprints in the Arabian Desert dating back to over seven million years, which they believe could 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.
“Basically, this is fossilized behavior,” the Huffington Post quoted researcher Faysal Bibi, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin, as saying.
“This is an absolutely unique site, a really rare opportunity in the fossil record that lets you see animal behavior in a way you couldn’t otherwise do with bones or teeth,” stated Bibi.
The site, known as Mleisa 1, is in the United Arab Emirates. The region then was 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.
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. It was not until January 2011, when researchers mapped the area from the air for the first time, “that we realized what we had and how we could go about studying it,” Bibi said.
The footprints cover an area of 12.3 acres (5 hectares). This is about equal to nine U.S. football fields, seven soccer fields, or the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
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 told LiveScience.
Analysis of the footsteps suggests they belonged to a herd of at least 13 elephants of different sizes and ages that walked through mud, leaving behind tracks that hardened, were buried, and then re-exposed by erosion.
The researchers also discovered tracks from a solitary male traveling in a different direction from the herd. These suggest the extinct giants divided into solitary and social groups, just as elephants do today. Also, these ancient pachyderms might have structured themselves along lines of sex just as their modern relatives do, with the males leaving the herd to live alone.
The scientists detail their findings online in the journal Biology Letters.