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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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The trackways stretch up to about 850 feet (260 meters) long, making them "the most extensive ever recorded for mammals, and to view them is to be transported 7 million years back in time when herds of four-tusked primitive elephants and other related behemoths roamed a wetter and more vegetated Arabian Peninsula," said paleontologist William Sanders at the University of Michigan, who did not take part in the study. [Photos of Elephant Trackways]
Actually mapping these footsteps proved challenging, since the individual tracks are each only about 15 inches (40 centimeters) wide, too small to show up in satellite imagery. To do so, researchers mounted a pocket digital camera onto a kite, stitching the hundreds of pictures it took into a single large mosaic image that gave a broad overview of the site.
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.
"Like the human handprints in Paleolithic caves, animal trackways crystallize in time [the] identity and behavior of the organisms that made them, and yield rare insights about these organisms, which fossil bones alone cannot provide," Sanders said.
The scientists detail their findings online tomorrow (Feb. 22) in the journal Biology Letters.
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