Imagine an elephant day care, with a bunch of babies, adolescents and older female elephants.
Fossilised footprints from 100,000 years ago were recently uncovered on a beach in Spain which seemed to suggest the existence of an elephant nursery. The area from over 1,29,000 years ago was called the Matalascanas Trampled Surface. And the footprints are from an extinct species of elephants which had straight tusks. The name of the species is Palaeoloxodon antiquus.
Straight-tusked elephants? That sounds bizarre, right? You may have learnt in your biology class about how the elephant’s tusk is just a very large incisor tooth. And this tusk has its current shape after passing through several stages of evolution. Apparently, the straight-tusked elephants were much stronger, bigger ancestors to today’s elephants. So, how were these footprints found and what does it tell us about the period then?
Archaeologists and scientists found these fossilised footprints on a beach. A lot of those footprints were round or oval-shaped and smooth. This shows that these elephants were newborns, calves and juveniles. Some of the footprints were much larger – corresponding to older female elephants. Possibly mothers and grandmothers.
There were fewer, much larger footprints indicating the presence of older elephants. These are indications that the straight-tusked elephants whose fossilised footprints were found in this region may have been a part of a nursery, with the occasional presence of adult male elephants.
You may be wondering: How did these archaeologists come up with such deductions based on mere fossilised footprints?
The research team used the length of each fossilized footprint to estimate the height and weight of each elephant. Biologists use this method to measure the size of modern-day elephants. Besides, they can also estimate the animal’s age and body mass by measuring the shape, size and depth of the tracks.
In reference to this particular elephant nursery, the expert scientists identified hundreds of oval-shaped footprints measuring about four to 21 inches in diameter. This helped them in coming up with an estimate of the gender, size and age of the straight-tusked elephants.
Tracks from around 33 individuals have been found. A significant portion of these elephants were babies. Just imagine! There were 14 elephants under two years old, measuring around 70 cm (just over 2 feet). That’s a lot of tiny and cute elephants, right?
We mentioned earlier that the discovery of these 33 Palaeoloxodon antiquus elephants occurred on a beach in Southern Spain. It turns out that when these elephants were in existence, these spaces were freshwater banks. Elephants have a habit of forming herds near the river banks due to the easy availability of water.
Owing to several events during the course of evolution, the freshwater beds became beaches. Infact, this beach in Spain was covered by 1.5 metres of sand. Various storm surges across the world have been unearthing several habitations of this straight-tusked elephant fossils in coastal Portugal.
It is lucky that the researchers found the footprints in such good quality. They only formed in rare conditions when the animals walked in soft mud. And when sunlight baked them dry, these tracks were then covered in sediment and preserved for several years.
Now that you understand what the footprints meant and how straight-tusked elephants inhabited river banks, let’s look at their culture and the way they lived.
A look at the way they lived shows that the elephants were mostly matriarchal – centred around mothers and older female elephants taking care of children and adults. And the male elephants are fewer in number. Scientists say that they just occasionally visited for mating and other social purposes.
Another deduction was made about prehistoric life during the Pliocene Epoch, when these elephants wandered on the earth. They lived alongside Neanderthals – one of the closest ancestors to humans – who used to hunt the younger elephants for food, the scientists noted.
What do you think happened to these straight-tusked elephants? Why don’t we see them anymore? Tell us in the comments below.
Aparna is a mom, singer and dreamer. At BYJU'S, she writes stories about learning for children. She believes in the power of music, especially ghazal, the magic of the universe and happy learners. When not writing or singing, you will find her intensely engaged in conversations about life and the power of words.
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