An elephant herd.

The ancient elephant tracks reflect behaviours carried out by modern elephants today ©Benh Lieu Song/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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Nursery for ancient elephants uncovered in Spain

A nursery for the largest land mammals ever to have lived has been uncovered in Spain, offering rare clues to their family lives.

The site is not only helping researchers understand how these animals lived, but may also give a glimpse into how our ancient ancestors hunted.

Uncovered by storm surges last year, the fossilised footprints reveal the variety of animals that lived in the area over 100,000 years ago. But for the first time, tracks of baby straight-tusked elephants have been discovered, suggesting the area was where the animals raised their young.

The footprints allow researchers to piece together the lifestyle, diet and social structure of these animals, something that can't be achieved with fossilised bones alone.

While many elephants were likely born at the site, there are hinting that it is also the place where many died. Tracks attributed to Neanderthals have also been uncovered, suggesting that they may have used the area as a living larder to hunt young elephants.

The fossilised elephant tracks.

The tracks were covered by sand for thousands of years ©Neto de Cavalho et al./CC BY 4.0

Big boned

Straight-tusked elephants were a diverse group of elephants including giant but also tiny species. They lived during the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago), with as many as nine species spread across Africa, Europe and Asia.

One of those species, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, lived in Eurasia and was among the largest mammal species to have ever lived on land, with males growing as large as 13 tonnes and measuring over four metres high.

Ample fossils of these elephants have been found across much of the European continent (including under the Museum itself), meaning we have a pretty good idea of what these animals looked like.

But their behaviour is far harder to understand from their bones alone. We know that the animals likely browsed for leaves and stems in a forested environment, but aspects of their social life are lacking.

However, in 2020 storm surges washed away the sand along beaches at Matalascañas in southern Spain, uncovering a range of preserved trackways. These only form in rare conditions when the animals walked in soft mud before the Sun baked them dry. These tracks were then covered in sediment and preserved for 100,000 years.

Tracks from around 33 individuals have been found, and using comparisons with modern elephants, researchers could estimate the size and age of the animals that left them.

Of these tracks 14 are thought to come from elephants less than two years old, which is the first time baby tracks have been discovered for these gentle giants.

The newborn elephants are estimated to have weighed around 70 kilograms and measured up to 66 centimetres high.

The rest of the individuals are likely to have been juveniles and adolescents, with a few smaller adults leading the way. Due to their smaller size, these adults are presumed to have been female, with a few larger tracks that were likely made by males.

Based on this evidence, the researchers believe that P. antiquus is likely to have behaved like modern elephants, with family herds of one or more related females and their young. Males form part of these groups until they become sexually mature at around 14 years old, when they leave the groups to live solitary lives.

The collection of footprints suggest that the area was where newborns were raised. This is supported by the presence of large freshwater lakes and grasslands not far from the trackways, providing a good habitat for the elephants to grow up in.

If the straight-tusked elephants mating and gestation periods were similar to modern elephants, then it is likely that the P. antiquus offspring would be born just after the rainy season, when these lakes would have been at their fullest.

However, the large family groups may have also made the elephants a tempting target.

An artist's impression of Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

An artist's impression of Palaeoloxodon antiquus ©DFoidl/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

Not only elephants

Neanderthal tracks were also found at the site, suggesting that they may have been targeting the elephants for food. They likely lived in coastal areas as they contained a variety of food sources such as fish, but P. antiquus may have also been on the menu.  

Elsewhere, stone tools have been found alongside the skeletal remains of elephants from around the same period that the Matalascañas tracks date to. This suggests that Neanderthals and other early humans may have hunted straight-tusked elephants, particularly younger and smaller individuals which would have been easier to kill. 

The Spanish tracks suggest that the Neanderthals may have visited and hunted seasonally, targeting young or infirm elephants as well as potentially butchering individuals which died during birth.  

Finding both Neanderthal and P. antiquus tracks in close proximity, especially in an area likely to be a nursery for the animals, adds further weight to claims that early humans specifically targeted young elephants as part of their diet.