animals

Tracks of long-gone elephants zigzag desert

YALE (US) — Ancient footprints in the Arabian desert reveal the early origins of modern elephants’ social structure.

Roughly seven million years old, the prints represent the movements of at least 14 prehistoric elephants through the inland desert of the Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi, anthropologists report in a paper published in the journal Biology Letters. Elephants vanished from the United Arab Emirates long ago.

The research shows that the prehistoric Stegotetrabelodon elephants exhibited social patterns typical of their modern descendants—herding by adult females and offspring, and solitary wandering by adult males.

A close-up from the researchers’ aerial photomosaic with color mapping shows two distinct trackways—one belonging to a herd of about 13 elephants of varying sizes, and an intersecting trail of a lone, larger elephant. (Credit: Faysal Bibi, et al.)

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“It is definitely clear that you have two social modes in elephants at this time,” says Yale University anthropologist Andrew Hill, a senior researcher on the project.

Plainly visible in the crusty surface of the desert, the seven million-year-old footprints were known to researchers for several years. But the inherent relationships among them only became clear after researchers produced and analyzed a detailed photo mosaic of the area using high-resolution aerial cameras.

The analysis revealed two distinct trackways—one belonging to a herd of about 13 elephants of varying sizes, and an intersecting trail of a lone, larger elephant. At more than 260 meters long, the latter trackway is among the longest fossilized mammalian routes ever recorded.

“It’s like walking back in time,” says Hill, whose former Yale graduate student, Faysal Bibi, now a postdoctoral fellow in Europe, is the paper’s first author.

Other authors contributed from the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific, Pennsylvania State University, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and the Université de Strasbourg.

Support for the research came from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the National Science Foundation, the Institute International de Paleoprimatologie et Paleontologie Humaine, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, and Yale University.

More news from Yale University: http://news.yale.edu/

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