These Tiny Fossilized Footprints Are Evidence Of An Ancient Elephant Nursery

This is the footprint of a baby straight-tusked elephant, the last elephant to walk the south Iberian peninsula. Image credit: Neto de Carvalho et al, 2021

Outside of zoos and safari parks, it’s probably going to be a challenge to find an elephant in Europe. They’re smart, but they’re hardly out there buying groceries or visiting the opera, after all. But if we could hop in a time machine and travel back to the Pleistocene, we would see communities of them all over the continent, from dwarf elephants to mammoths – and roaming across the full width of Europe and Asia, straight-tusked elephants: huge, socially sophisticated animals that apparently liked to hang out on the beaches of southern Spain, as fossilized footprints of an ancient elephant nursery and its newborn charges indicate.

Described in a new paper by geologist and paleobiologist Dr Carlos Neto de Carvalho and his co-authors and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the 34 sets of ancient footprints analyzed represent only a few weeks or so of history, but they offer us an exciting and kind of adorable idea of what life was like for these now-extinct titans.

“Among thousands of footprints, mostly from large herbivores, it is remarkable the occurrence of very small elephant tracks and trackways, sometimes in very close range or parallel to the ones of large size elephants,” Carvalho told IFLScience. “Such small tracks could only be produced by newborn elephants or calves with days to weeks in age, walking around their mothers.”

Even today, Carvalho explained, African forest elephants are known to set up “nurseries” for their offspring – and as a lake surrounded by vegetation and sand dunes, the area would have been a perfect place to look after offspring too young to travel for food. It’s “not a surprise” that straight-tusked elephants would have taken advantage of the habitat like their closest living relatives do today, Carvalho said.

“No doubt the tiny and well-preserved elephant tracks are great evidence of newborn straight-tusked elephants,” Carvalho told IFLScience. “[This] is very rare evidence worldwide.”

Sadly, the idyll couldn’t last. Straight-tusked elephants may have cut an imposing figure – at up to 4.5 meters (15 feet) in height, with tusks more than 2 meters (6.5 feet) long sticking straight out from their mouths, they were bigger even than woolly mammoths – but their babies were easy prey for hunters, and local Neanderthals were “well aware” of when the elephants would be vulnerable, the research team hypothesizes.

“In a close-range from the newborn prints we found tracks and a trackway of Neandertals,” Carvalho told IFLscience. “We know that Neandertals were living or visiting coastal areas for the purpose of improving their diets … they were there in the right time with the single purpose of getting their hands on a fat-rich, delicious newborn elephant.”

A trackway attributed to a Neanderthal adult hunting a baby elephant, found in Matalascañas. Credit: Neto de Carvalho et al, 2021

The tracks of ancient elephants have been found in Europe before, but rarely do they include babies so young as the ones discovered in the Matalascañas Trampled Surface.

“Matalascañas on the coast of Huelva [in south-west Spain] represents a snapshot of animal behavior in the fossil record,” Carvalho told IFLScience. “As you can imagine, a footprint is destroyed by erosion or animal trampling in a matter of days, maybe weeks. In Matalascañas we have … thousands of footprints made by different species of animals that once lived there over 100,000 years ago.”

Incredible though this discovery is, there’s still much more to learn, Carvalho explained – and a lot of people involved in learning it. For such a singularly evocative find, the project is remarkably multidisciplinary, involving “paleontologists, geologists, archeologists … and even a tracker with lots of experience tracking animals in Africa enthusiastically working together for this purpose,” he told IFLScience.

“Definitely we have a lot to study about the behavior and ecology of elephants and Neandertals in coastal sedimentary records,” said Carvalho. “We have several new sites … and now it is time to describe and relate them.”

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