Fossilized footprints of extinct elephant species reveal a prehistoric nursery in Spain


A recent find on a beach in southern Spain suggests the region was a nursery for an extinct species of elephant thousands of years ago. Fossilized footprints of ancient elephants with straight tusks have been found on the coast of Huelva, a region scientists call the Matalascanas-Trampled Surface. Footprints and tracks have been attributed to the newborns, calves and young of the elephant species with straight tusks. Earlier studies suggest that the tracks were created around 1.06,000 years ago. This was the first time footprints of a newborn elephant with straight tusks were found.

However, the scientists focused on studying the social behavior and biology of these elephants, which were cried out during the last ice age. From previous studies on fossilized bones, scientists knew that adult elephants with straight tusks can weigh around 5,500 kilograms for females and 13,000 kilograms for males. However, details about the younger ones were not yet known.

The study was published in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports. The report in the journal states that the straight-toothed elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus “is one of the most powerful proboscis that has ever lived, and one of the toughest species of Elephantidae with very broad heads and extremely long tusks”.

According to Science News, an American bi-weekly magazine that reports on scientific and technical developments, Huelva beach is covered with a meter and a half of sand. A storm last year washed away the sand layer and exposed the footprints that were preserved in sand-clay sediments. The trail included footprints of elephants with straight tusks, as well as cattle, deer, wolves, and even Neanderthals.

The tracks of the newborns are 9.6 cm in diameter. Scientists concluded that these tracks could belong to a two-month-old elephant, who was 66 cm at the shoulders and weighed around 70 kg.

There are also tracks from older and female elephants. It suggests that the region was frequented by these members of the group and may have served as a kindergarten. Preserved traces of roots indicate an old patch of flowering vegetation and ponds and lakes in the region.

Anthony Martin, an expert on trace fossils at Emory University in Atlanta who was not part of the team, told Science News that the results were “an exciting study.” The tracks give an insight into movement patterns, social structures and reproductive ecology of the species.

The presence of other species suggests that the region was rich in diversity. Experts are particularly interested in the presence of Neanderthals in the region. These ancient hominids likely hunted young elephants or looted elephant carcasses or other animals, Martin said.

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