Fossilized Footprints Reveal an Ancient Elephant Nursery in Spain

Straight-tusked elephants as young as two months old trampled around the area with their mothers

Fossilized Elephant Footprint
Scientists first spotted the tracks, including this one from a calf, after storms in 2020 swept away several feet of sand in Spain. Neto de Carvalho et al.

Archaeologists recently discovered tracks stomped by elephants on a beach in southwestern Spain more than 100,000 years ago. Many of the smooth oval-shaped prints belonged to newborns, calves and juvenile straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), suggesting that the area, known as the Matalascañas Trampled Surface, was an elephant nursery, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. The find, described in Scientific Reports last week, offers a snapshot of parental care and social behavior in the ancient elephants.  

 

The straight-tusked elephant roamed around Western Asia and Europe during the middle to late Pleistocene epoch, which ended 11,700 years ago. The extinct ancient mammal stood up to 15 feet tall and would have easily towered over their present-day relatives, reports Carly Cassella for Science Alert.  

 

Scientists first spotted the tracks after storms in 2020 swept away several feet of sand in the Matalascañas Trampled Surface, per Live Science. Besides elephant tracks, footprints of cattle, pigs, deer, water birds, wolves and Neanderthals were also uncovered, reports Sid Perkins for Science News.

 

The research team used the length of each fossilized footprint to estimate the height and weight of each elephant. Biologists use this method to size up modern-day elephants and can estimate the animal's age and body mass by measuring the shape, size and depth of the tracks, Live Science reports.  

 

Scientists identified hundreds of oval-shaped footprints measuring about four to 21 inches in diameter. Each footprint belonged to an individual straight-tusked elephant, including 14 elephants under two years old, reports Live Science. The youngest tracks belonged to 2-month-old elephants. They moved in a herd consisting of three mother elephants over 15 years old, reports Science Alert. From the prints, scientists also identified eight elephants between two and seven years old and six adolescents between eight and 15 years old, Live Science reports.

 

Archeologists also identified two larger tracks, and archeologists suspect they belonged to an adult male elephant weighing 15,432 pounds that stood at roughly 12 feet.

 

Elephants of today are matriarchal, and their social groups are sexually segregated. Female elephants will care for their young while male elephants usually leave their groups when they sexually mature. According to Live Science, the males return to the female-led groups only to mate. Like modern-day elephants, ancient straight-tusked elephant herds may have also been led by females. The presence of male tracks at the location in Spain suggests the site was used for reproduction, per Science Alert.

 

While the Matalascañas Trampled Surface is now a beach, it would have been a source of freshwater and food for the elephants' thousands of years ago. The elephant groups sought out water and tended to stay near it so their young could drink and feed on nearby resources. Other places that show female-led straight-tusked elephant tracks near coastal dune sites include Portugal, per Live Science.

 

"Matriarchal herds of straight-tusked elephants have been visiting the coastal areas for thousands of years," said study author and geologist, Neto de Carvalho, to Live Science. "They were giving birth close to small freshwater lakes and ponds in an open landscape, where predators of the newborn could be controlled from afar."

 

However, the research team found Neanderthal prints and stone tools at the site that suggested our now-extinct ancient human relative would prey on vulnerable juvenile elephants and calves or mothers in labor, Science Alert reports.