Ice Age Animals: Traces of an Alien World

Dhe European forest elephant is one of the most impressive fauna of the Ice Age – also in this country. Unlike the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which is at home in tropical rainforests, populated the European forest elephant (Palaeoloxodon) once deciduous forests of the Mediterranean and temperate climate zone. During the cold ages when much of Europe was covered in ice and the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) roamed through the adjacent steppe areas, the European forest elephant did not find a suitable ambience north of the Alps. However, more pleasantly temperate regions in the Mediterranean area offered him refuges. During the warm periods of the Ice Age, it penetrated north, as far as southern England, the Netherlands and central Lower Saxony.

As numerous skeletal finds prove, the European forest elephant, with its tusks up to three meters long, was even more stately than the African steppe elephant: Female specimens weighed around five tons and reached shoulder height of up to three meters, while males sometimes even more than four meters. It is estimated that they weighed up to 13 tons. However, the fossil bones provide little information about the social behavior of the giant proboscis. Using fossil footprints in Spain, an international group of researchers recently discovered that European forest elephants have organized themselves in a similar way to today’s elephants.

Paleontologists working with Carlos Neto de Carvalho from the University of Lisbon, Zain Belaústegui from the University of Barcelona and Francisco Giles-Guzmán from the Gibraltar National Museum studied the meaningful footprints on the beach in the resort of Matalascañas in the Andalusian province of Huelva. The fact that the tracks that elephants left in damp ground a good hundred thousand years ago were discovered at all is thanks to a storm surge in spring 2020: Stormy waves washed away the sand that covered the fossil tracks several meters high and protected them from weathering.

Meaningful footprints in what was once loamy-sandy soil

Before the uncovered footsteps of European forest elephants disappeared under the sand again, they were precisely measured and photographed. Fortunately, a loamy-sandy soil was once just moist enough not to tear under the kicks of the weighty animals, but to provide a precise impression of the soles of the feet. Sometimes you can even see scars or toenail prints. Measurements on elephants living today confirm a linear relationship between the length of the footsteps and shoulder height. Age can also be estimated on the basis of many more or less complete skeletons.

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