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Elephants in Arabia? Scientists find prehistoric footprints.

The fossilized gigantic footprints detected in the Arabian dessert belong to a herd of elephants, scientists say.  The seven-million-year-old discovery marks the world’s oldest evidence on how these ancient mammals lived.  

By Charles ChoiLiveScience Contributor / February 22, 2012

Nature Reserve, Africa - An African Bush Elephant

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The world's oldest elephant tracks have now been revealed, 7-million-year-old footprints in the Arabian Desert, researchers say.

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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," said researcher Faysal Bibi, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin. "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."

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. 

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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 Creatures of Cryptozoology]

"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 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 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."

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