PALAEONTOLOGISTS working in the United Arab Emirates have uncovered elephant footprints that are 7 million years old, making them the oldest of their kind and possibly the longest preserved trackway in the world.
The find, reported in the journal Biology Letters, was made at a site called Mleisa 1, in the UAE's Baynunah Formation, a geological outcrop dated to the late Miocene.
The footprints came from a herd of at least 13 elephants, ranging from adults to a young calf, as they walked through mud.
The traces hardened, became buried and 7 million years later became exposed once more through erosion. They are the oldest fossil evidence of an elephant herd.
A larger imprint, distant from the others in the herd, is believed to be that of a male.
The traces provide the oldest direct evidence for the complex social structure among elephants - a society that is matriarchal and segregated by sex and has solitary and herding behaviours. Male elephants are raised in the family unit until adolescence. They then lead lives that are mainly solitary, reuniting from time to time, usually for mating.
At 260 metres in length, the male's footprints could be the longest continuous fossil trackway in the world. The study is led by Faysal Bibi of the Museum fuer Naturkunde in Berlin.