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Fossil tracks and trunk marks reveal indicators of historical elephants on South Africa’s coast

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A whole bunch of hundreds of years in the past, South Africa’s Cape south coast regarded very completely different. A number of the species that roamed this space at the moment are extinct; others advanced over the millennia and their fashionable descendants inhabit completely different areas – some far-off, others close by.

For example, within the 19th century, a inhabitants that got here to be often called the “Knysna elephants” (a reference to the closest huge city) have been probably the most southerly group of elephants in Africa. Over time they turned the one free-ranging elephants in South Africa. Their numbers have been decimated by the ivory market and habitat transformation. Proof signifies that just one elephant, an grownup feminine in her forties, stays.

Now, about 18km from the world that lone elephant occupies, we now have discovered new proof of her historical ancestors within the type of fossil tracksites from the Pleistocene Epoch. These websites range in age from 400,000 to 35,000 years. The tracks, preserved in aeolianites (the cemented stays of dune surfaces) and cemented seaside deposits, dovetail with more moderen proof that elephants traditionally made widespread use of open areas within the area.

Together with elephant tracks from websites on the Cape south coast, we recognized what seems to be the primary instance within the world hint fossil file of elephant trunk-drag impressions. We interpret the impressions in query as having been made by an elephant both dragging its trunk or dragging one thing it was gripping in its trunk. These marks are per the kind of trunk-drag traces described in monitoring manuals and on varied web sites.

The extant African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) – the Knysna elephant belongs to this species – is understood to indicate trunk-dragging behaviour beneath a wide range of circumstances, together with musth, sporadic durations throughout which bull elephants are notably aggressive.

Our current article centered on the 35 elephant tracksites, that are among the many greater than 300 vertebrate Pleistocene tracksites that we now have recognized alongside a 350km stretch of the shoreline since 2008. Such fossil tracksites can inform us many issues about what occurred on these historical dunes and seashores, and the traditional surroundings that the elephants roamed.

For one, they provide insights into the possible historical past of the Knysna elephants, suggesting that the remaining elephants retreated into dense afrotemperate forest for defense in current centuries, the place hunters had issue discovering them.

The tracksites are additionally vital as a result of elephants are ecosystem engineers. Their presence might have large-scale results on the panorama: for instance, they will remodel woody habitats to extra open habitats. They could nicely have facilitated the event and upkeep of the mosaic of woodland and grassland habitats that characterised the large, now-submerged Palaeo-Agulhas Plain in the course of the Pleistocene.

Giant tracks

This elongated groove was probably brought on by an elephant dragging its trunk or dragging one thing it was carrying in its trunk.
Charles Helm

Fossil elephant tracks can take quite a lot of kinds. Typically they’re acquainted depressions; generally they seem as pure casts, representing the layer that stuffed within the tracks and, so, protruding down from the ceilings of overhangs. They can be seen in profile in cliff outcrops.

Elephant tracks, predictably given the animals’ measurement, usually deform underlying layers. Typically, when these tracks may be discerned in profile in a number of successive layers, conclusions may be drawn about repeated use of an space over time. In some instances, elephant tracks on seashores have been precursors for the formation of potholes. In locations they’ve been eroded into weird shapes, which seaside hikers admire and move by with out figuring out their intriguing origins.

Analogies may be drawn between Pleistocene elephant tracks and Mesozoic dinosaur tracks: in each eventualities they have been the biggest tracks of their time, made by the heaviest creatures. In reality, it seems that the elephant tracks we described at one website, measuring as a lot as 70cm in diameter, are the biggest tracks ever recognized for the reason that “Age of Dinosaurs”.

The elephant trunk-drag website was recognized on an aeolianite floor within the Goukamma Nature Reserve, round 500km east of Cape City. There have been additionally tracks of the extinct long-horned buffalo and of smaller buck species, two coprolite websites – that’s, fossilised dung – and small carnivore tracks, alongside quite a few examples of elephant tracks.

The location is barely uncovered at low tide, being topic to intense wave motion throughout excessive tides and storm surges. It’s also often coated by metres-thick layers of seaside sand, so we have been lucky to seek out it throughout a uncommon event by which it was uncovered.

A shirtless man in blue shorts is seen underwater, a ruler in his hand held against a rock surface. A large indentation is visible on the rock.
Measuring an underwater elephant monitor.
Charles Helm

Right here, beside an elephant trackway comprising 13 tracks which traversed a cemented dune slope, we encountered a “serpentine” sequence of two lengthy, barely curved groove options with an outward convexity, one on both sides of the trackway. Displacement rims have been current; these point out {that a} compressive pressure had triggered the grooves. In a single spot we might inform that the grooves have been registered first, after which the tracks, per how elephant footprints usually are superimposed on components of trunk-drag impressions.

We thought-about interpretations apart from trunk-drag impressions, however any different potentialities seemed to be actually distant.

Filling in gaps

There are not any physique fossils of elephants from this time interval, so the accessible details about how these gigantic animals moved via the traditional landscapes presently relies upon fully on the monitor file.

Every elephant tracksite we establish evokes a way of marvel at how the tracks – and on this case, the trunk-drag impression – survived, towards the percentages, and at the moment are amenable to our interpretation, as we attempt to learn the story the rocks inform us.

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