Some 43,000 years ago, not long after a volcano rained down ash on what would become a dried lake bed in Oregon, a herd of Columbian mammoths ambled across the fringe of a lake. The soft ground preserved in time this ancient wandering, giving researchers the rare chance to study the extinct animals' social group.
When it comes to ancient animals, a lot focus is understandably on the bones of the long-dead creatures. But fossil footprints, also known as trackways, can also tell us a surprising amount about the locomotion of the beasts that made them. For example, by studying the prints left by sauropods, palaeontologists were able to determine that the hefty dinosaurs walked with their tails held aloft, not dragging along the ground as originally thought.
More importantly, fossil footprints can teach us about things never usually preserved through time: the behavior of extinct animals.
From studying the prints left behind as ancient animals wandered the landscape, we can tell that some moved in large herds, protected their young by keeping them in the middle of moving groups, or worked in packs to bring down prey much bigger than themselves. The set of mammoth prints uncovered in the old Oregonian lake bed is no different.
This latest piece of research has focused in on just a 20-footprint section of the trackway that show some unusual aspects. For a start, the prints of the single, probably female adult were particularly close together, but it also looks like the prints on the right were more deeply impressed than those on the left. The researchers suspect that this means the mammoth was limping as she walked.
Yet that is not the most intriguing part. As the limping mammoth trudged along, it seems that one or perhaps two younger mammoths approached the lumbering female, before retreating again.
“These juveniles may have been interacting with an injured adult female, returning to her repeatedly throughout the journey, possibly out of concern for her slow progress,” says Museum of Natural and Cultural History paleontologist Greg Retallack in a statement. “Such behavior has been observed with wounded adults in modern, matriarchal herds of African elephants.”
While this might not be surprising, it is still impressive that behaviors like this can be inferred from the footprints of animals that were alive over 40,000 years ago. It is also pretty nice to support the theory that in all likelihood they did behave like living elephants do today. The full study can be found in the journal of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.