Footprints of Newborn Straight-Tusked Elephants Found in Spain

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Ichnological evidence and reconstruction of Palaeoloxodon antiquus social interactions deduced from the Matalascañas Trampled Surface, Spain: (a-c) two adult (presumably female) ‘A1 & A2’ and one juvenile trackway ‘c’ showing convergence (the toe impressions indicate opposite orientation of movement); note overstepping of pes over manus in the main adult trackways that is not seen in the smaller tracks, in this case because the small juvenile may have stopped just after the larger animal slowly passed by (interpretation in c); (d) example of a young mother-newborn Loxodonta africana interaction; (e) reconstitution of mother-newborn interaction in the Matalascañas Trampled Surface. Image credit: J. Galán / Neto de Carvalho et al., doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-96754-1.

Paleontologists have discovered tracks and trackways of newborns, calves and juveniles attributed to straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) at the Upper Pleistocene site in Huelva, Spain.

The straight-tusked elephant is a species of giant elephant that lived between 1.5 million and 100,000 years ago.

This animal with very wide heads and extremely long tusks is among the most powerful proboscideans (elephants and their extinct relatives) that has ever lived.

Based on well-preserved skeletons, estimates of maximum shoulder height vary from 3 to 4.2 m (10-14 feet) and body mass from 4.5-5.5 to 13 tons for females and males, respectively.

“In the Iberian Peninsula, straight-tusked elephants prevailed in Mediterranean evergreen woodland which was widespread during the interglacial periods,” said University of Lisbon’s Dr. Carlos Neto de Carvalho and colleageus.

“This is especially true in southern Spain, where they replaced steppe mammoths (Mammuthus trogontherii) during Middle Pleistocene.”

In the research, the paleontologists examined 34 sets of footprints at a site called the Matalascañas Trampled Surface in Huelva, Spain.

Based on the rounded-elliptical shape of the prints and other criteria, they attributed the tracks to straight-tusked elephants.

To determine the age of individual animals, the researchers calculated shoulder height and body mass based on footprint length.

They identified footprints of 14 calves, which they estimate as having been between newborns and two years of age. Their body mass was estimated to have been between 70 and 200 kg.

The scientists also categorized tracks from eight juveniles (two to seven years old) and six adolescents (eight to 15 years old).

Additionally, they identified adult tracks possibly made by three adult females (over 15 years) based on the tracks’ close proximity to those of young calf footprints.

Only two tracks were identified as having been made by males, with much larger footprints (over 50 cm, or 1.6 feet, in length) and estimated body masses of over 7 tons.

“The high frequency of young elephants may indicate that the area, which once had an interdune pond, was a reproductive site for elephant herds, with the surrounding vegetation providing a food source for young elephants unable to travel long distances to other food sources,” the authors said.

The team’s paper was publisherd in the journal Scientific Reports.


C. Neto de Carvalho et al. 2021. First tracks of newborn straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). Sci Rep 11, 17311; doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-96754-1