Ancient Mammoth Track Fossils Suggest Family Was Critical to Survival
We might think of love and family as primarily human concerns, concepts that evolved as homo sapiens' brains did on the path to forming our society over thousands of years, but a new discovery suggests that these aren't just products of evolution. In fact, familial bonds—and indeed even the idea of family "love"—pervade prehistory and may have been integral to survival during the Ice Age, a recent groundbreaking discovery of mammoth tracks suggests.
Oregon's Fossil Lake is an ancient basin that earned its name soon after its first excavation in 1876. It wasn't until a century and a half later in 2014, though, when researchers discovered huge mammoth tracks.
Gregory Retallack, a University of Oregon professor and a paleontologist with the Museum of Natural and Cultural History who discovered the tracks, returned to excavate them in 2017. He found 117 impressions in the tracks, which were eventually dated at 43,000 years old.
"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," Retallack, who also is a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, said in a statement.
All in all, Retallack and his six-member team found one 20-meter-long adult trail, partial trackways of three additional adults, a yearling and a baby all heading generally west.
These tracks suggested that also the adult mammoth on its 20-meter-long trail wasn't alone; two sets of smaller footprints were found in patterns, suggesting they were approaching and retreating from the path of the limping mammoth, as if they were caring for or checking on an ailing family member.
"These juveniles may have been interacting with a limping adult female, returning to her repeatedly throughout the journey, possibly out of concern for her slow progress," Retallack said.
In his newly published study, Retallack and his team explain how this finding draws similar parallels between the parenting styles of mammoths and modern elephants.
"Columbian mammoths may have moved like modern elephants with infants in matriarchal groups through landscapes of sagebrush and grassland, and this trackway includes a limping female attended by concerned juveniles," it says.
"Grassland paleosols common in the Fossil Lake Formation, are now rare in the same region, perhaps related to extinction of proboscidean and equine grazers."