Science  24 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6071, pp. 897

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  1. Elephant Footsteps Reveal Ancient Herd Behavior

    When a herd of elephant ancestors walked through mud in the Arabian Desert about 7 million years ago, they unwittingly left their footprints—and clues about their behavior—behind. Those prints now expose how the herd behaved: Just like modern elephants, they followed a female leader.

    On track.

    Ancient elephants followed a female leader.


    The remarkable 260-meter-long trackway, made by at least 13 proboscideans of different sizes, is at the site of Mleisa 1 in the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi Emirate. Using a kite-mounted camera to take aerial photographs of the footprints, an international team of researchers, with the support of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture, analyzed the prints' stride lengths and patterns. One solitary trackway was made by a large male traveling in a totally different direction from the other, smaller animals, according to a study in this week's Biology Letters. This “fossilized behavior” suggests that 7 million years ago, females and young elephant ancestors followed a matriarchal female but males dispersed when they reached sexual maturity, just as modern elephants behave today, says primary author Faysal Bibi of the Museum für Naturkunde in Germany.