Mammoth footprints from 43,000 years ago suggest that the huge beasts took care of their elderly.
The 117 tracks, found in Lake County, Oregon, belong to a Colombian mammoth family that roamed the area during the Ice Age.
A set of 20 of the tracks intrigued scientists because they were especially close together and deeper on one side.
They believe the deep prints belong to a limping elderly mammoth who was helped along on their journey by the younger mammoths in the group.
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Researchers from the University of Oregon excavated 117 mammoth prints in total and a group of 20 prints indicated an adult was limping. There were also two sets of prints going back and forth indicating two juveniles were caring for the wounded giant
The fossilised footprints were first discovered during a 2014 University of Oregon field trip by a group of students led by Professor Greg Retallack.
He later returned to excavate the find with a team from the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the Bureau of Land Management and the University of Louisiana.
Last year, the team received permission from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to dig up the site and found an intriguing group of about 20 footprints.
‘These prints were especially close together, and those on the right were more deeply impressed than those on the left-as if an adult mammoth had been limping,’ said Professor Retallack.
The study reveals that despite struggling, the animal wasn’t alone.
Two sets of smaller footprints appeared to be approaching and retreating from the limper’s path.
‘These juveniles may have been interacting with an injured adult female, returning to her repeatedly throughout the journey, possibly out of concern for her slow progress,’ Professor Retallack said.
‘Such behaviour has been observed with wounded adults in modern, matriarchal herds of African elephants.’
Researchers believe the footprints belong to the Colombian mammoths which roamed what is now the modern-day United States. They believe the wounded animal was looked after by younger animals who were concerned about it
COULD WE RESURRECT MAMMOTHS?
Male Woolly mammoths were around 12 feet (3.5m) tall, while the females were slightly smaller.
They had curved tusks up to 16 feet (5m) long and their underbellies boasted a coat of shaggy hair up to 3 feet (1m) long.
Tiny ears and short tails prevented vital body heat being lost.
Their trunks had ‘two fingers’ at the end to help them pluck grass, twigs and other vegetation.
They get their name from the Russian ‘mammut’, or earth mole, as it was believed the animals lived underground and died on contact with light – explaining why they were always found dead and half-buried.
Their bones were once believed to have belonged to extinct races of giants.
Woolly mammoths and modern-day elephants are closely related, sharing 99.4 per cent of their genes.
The two species took separate evolutionary paths six million years ago, at about the same time humans and chimpanzees went their own way.
Woolly mammoths co-existed with early humans, who hunted them for food and used their bones and tusks for making weapons and art.
The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, allows scientists to create a hybrid animal from the preserved fossils of Woolly mammoths and merging it with cells from a living elephant. The two species share 99.4 per cent of their DNA
‘De-extincting’ the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.
The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012.
The system allows the ‘cut and paste’ manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.
Using this technique, scientists could cut and paste preserved mammoth DNA into Asian elephants to create and elephant-mammoth hybrid.
Mammoths roamed the icy tundra of Europe and North America for 140,000 years, disappearing at the end of the Pleistocene period, 10,000 years ago.
They are one of the best understood prehistoric animals known to science because their remains are often not fossilised but frozen and preserved.
As part of the 2017 study, Neffra Matthews of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Operations Centre in Denver, helped survey, map and document the trackway.
She helped the scientists take accurate measurements based on land-based or aerial photographs.
‘There is a vast storehouse of natural history found on BLM-managed land, and it’s exciting to work with researchers like Professor Retallack in capturing 3D data on fragile paleontological resources,’ she said.
Found in Fossil Lake, Oregon, the tracks show the complex social structures of the ice-age giants.
Similar to their modern-day descendants, they were highly intelligent creatures that lived in matriarchal (female led) social groups.
The Colombian mammoths remain more mysterious than their cousins the Woolly mammoths and less is known about them. Woolly mammoths lived further north, in a colder climate which better preserved many specimens
The Colombian mammoths remain more mysterious than their cousins the Woolly mammoths and less is known about them.
Woolly mammoths lived further north, in a colder climate which better preserved many specimens.
The two species were similar in size – adults were roughly 13 feet (4 metres) tall at the shoulder and weighed 22,000 lb (10 tonnes).
The coat of the Woolly mammoth was probably thicker, in order to protect against the bitter cold in the Artctic.
All species of mammoth went extinct during the Quaternary extinction event, which began 40,000 years ago and peaked between 14,000 and 11,500 years ago.
All species of mammoth went extinct during the Quaternary extinction event, which began 40,000 years ago and peaked between 14,000 and 11,500 years ago. The two species were similar in size – adults were roughly 13 feet (4 metres) tal and weighed 22,000 lb (10 tonnes)
This coincides with both the end of the latest ice-age and when human hunter-gatherers first reached the Americas.
‘America’s public lands are some of the world’s greatest outdoor laboratories. Localities such as this mammoth tracksite are unique parts of America’s heritage and indicate that there are many special sites still to be discovered,’ said study co-author Brent Breithaupt, a paleontologist in the Wyoming State Office of the Bureau of Land Management.
‘Tracks sometimes tell more about ancient creatures than their bones, particularly when it comes to their behaviour,’ he said.
‘It’s amazing to see this kind of interaction preserved in the fossil record.’
The fossilised footprints were first discovered in a 2014 field trip with a group of students by the lead researcher Professor Greg Retallack. The site was excavated in 2017 after receiving appropriate documentation