Paris, 22 February 2012

Prehistoric elephants as sociable as their modern counterparts

Modern elephants are sociable animals, and so were their prehistoric ancestors, as revealed by an exceptional seven million-year-old elephant trackway site in the Arabian desert. The trackways are both the longest ever discovered for mammals, and the oldest known record of social interaction among prehistoric elephants. These findings were made by an international team including researchers from IPHEP(1) (CNRS/Université de Poitiers). The study is published in Biology Letters dated 22 February 2012.

Seven million years ago, the Arabian peninsula was crossed by a river system that flowed into the sea in what is now Abu Dhabi.
It was there, at the Mleisa 1 site, that an international team including researchers from IPHEP(1) (CNRS/Université de Poitiers) discovered fossil elephant footprints dating from the same period and covering an area of five hectares. Revealed by recent erosion, the thirteen trackways are exceptionally long(2), some of them extending over a distance of more than 250 meters. They were made by a herd of young and adult prehistoric elephants of various sizes and weights.

Just like their modern counterparts, prehistoric elephants therefore showed gregarious behavior.  Today, adult female elephants congregate in herds together with their young, while the males leave the herd at puberty, only returning during the breeding season. The presence at Mleisa 1 of a single trackway 260 meters long, showing large footprints and stride lengths, points to the solitary behavior of males, as in modern elephants.

This study is especially interesting as it makes it possible to draw conclusions about prehistoric elephants' behavior that cannot be inferred from fossil bones and teeth.

The study and interpretation of the various trackways in their entirety as well as in their tiniest details were carried out by means of a virtual reconstruction of the site. This method revealed the full extent of the trackways and the paleontological importance of the site.

The study forms part of the Baynunah Paleontology Project research program. Analysis of the fossil footprints, bones and teeth found nearby will help to reconstruct environmental change in the Arabian peninsula. At that time, the peninsula was an integral part of the African continent, where humans were taking their very first steps.

The research was funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture, the National Science Foundation (US), the Institut International de Paléoprimatologie, Paléontologie Humaine : Évolution et Paléoenvironnements (CNRS/Université de Poitiers) and the University of Yale.


Faysal Bibi

© Mark Beech

The first author of the study, Faysal Bibi, uncovering an elephant print at the Mleisa 1 site.

Nathan Craig

© Faysal Bibi

Nathan Craig, co-author of the study, recording digital imaging data with a camera attached to a kite.

A close-up of the Mleisa 1 elephant trackways

© The authors & the Baynunah Paleontology Project

A close-up of the Mleisa 1 elephant trackways from the reconstructed photo. The various trackways are highlighted in color.

Reconstruction of the Mleisa 1 herd

© Mauricio Antón

Reconstruction of the Mleisa 1 herd (the elephant shown is a Stegotetrabelodon, the most commonly found fossil in the Baynunah formation).


(1)Institut international de paléoprimatologie, paléontologie humaine : évolution et paléoenvironnements
(2) Mammal trackways discovered until now have rarely exceeded a few tens of meters in length.


Bibi, F., Kraatz, B., Craig, N., Beech, M., Schuster, M., and Hill, A. 2012. Early evidence for complex social structure in Proboscidea from a late Miocene trackway site in the United Arab Emirates. Biology Letters, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1185


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Jean-Renaud Boisserie I T 05 49 45 37 54 (ou 53) / 06 37 47 63 75 I

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