Fossilized Elephant Tracks Map Animals’ Early Behavior

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Elephant tracks in the desert. Scientists have unearthed prehistoric tracks in the United Arab Emirates that give insight into elephant history.

Researchers say they have discovered prehistoric tracks which point to the ancestors of modern-day elephants, who lived in herds in what is now the United Arab Emirates.

In a 12.3-acre site, known as Mleisa 1, researchers located fossilized footprints. The discovery signifies the oldest record of about a dozen of the four-tusked elephant creatures and how they moved and interacted. The footprints, presumably made by elephants of different sizes and ages, were left in mud that hardened and was then buried before erosion eventually unearthed them again, researcher Faysal Bibi, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin, wrote in the journal Biology Letters.

(PHOTOS: Elephants of Asia)

The tracks allow researchers to map the elephants’ movements and behavior more than if they simply found bone fragments, for example, in an area that once boasted a large river with lush vegetation. With the region known for hosting an array of animals, the largest tracks of the bunch were once believed by locals to be that of dinosaurs, but researchers say they resemble the tracks of African elephants during the same time period and also have similarities with Asian and European species.

Elephant experts say fossils show that these early elephant families—Stegotetrabelodon syrticus—may remind us of modern-day elephants, but with two tusks in the upper jaw to compliment the two tusks in the lower jaw, a stark difference.

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Once researchers realized the vast area they were dealing with, they needed help mapping the footprints, which were too small to use satellite imagery to view. Instead, researchers opted to place a digital camera onto a kite, using that to create a mosaic image. Once the footprints were mapped, researchers could attempt to determine how the elephants interacted, including finding prints that suggested a large male left the herd at one point, similar to behavior from elephants today.