Richard Collins


Mammoth tracks give an insight into lives

During a 2014 field trip to Oregon’s Lake County, palaeontologist Gregory Retallack discovered fossilised animal tracks, writes Richard Collins

Mammoth tracks give an insight into lives

There were 117 foot impressions along what appeared to be an ancient pathway. Retallack returned last year, with other experts, to excavate the site. Some of their results have just appeared.

The prints, they found, were made by mammoths trekking across an expanse of volcanic soil about 43,000 years ago. A twenty-footprint section of the track is particularly interesting; it gives a rare insight into the lives of these long-extinct creatures.

The prints from the right feet of one mammoth are much deeper than those on its left side and the two sets of prints are unusually close together. The scientists believe that these were made an adult which had been injured and was limping.

There are also two sets of smaller footprints, leading out from, and doubling back towards, the pathway. The limping adult was evidently a mother, whose calves kept retreating from, and returning to, her.

Were the youngsters impatient at the mother’s slow progress and trying to get her to move faster? Such behaviour is occasionally seen among injured elephants today.

The Asian elephant, the mammoths’ closest living relative, is a social animal with strong family ties. Evidently, mammoth society was similar.

Mammoths have ‘profile’. The world’s first wildlife artists left illustrations of them on the walls of caves in France and Spain. The great beast lives on in our imaginations. We talk of ‘mammoth tasks’.

A host of consumer goods, a Californian ski resort, a Kentucky national park and a French supermarket chain have been named after the hairy elephant. Ellie and Manny are woolly mammoths in the popular Ice Age films.

Bones of several animals are sometimes found at a single location. The terrified creatures, it was once thought, had huddled together as the waters of the biblical Great Flood rose around them.

Modern explanations are more prosaic; mammoth herds became mired in swamps, fell through the ice while crossing frozen lakes or were funnelled into natural traps and killed by our Stone Age ancestors.

DNA analysis suggests that, like modern elephants, a herd of females and youngsters would be led by a matriarch.

Males roamed alone or in bachelor groups. Without the guidance of a wise old female, they often engaged in risky behaviour; not surprisingly, 70% of fossils are male.

Woolly mammoths lived in Ireland prior to the last glaciation, 25,000 years ago.

The Oregon footprints, however, were made by the, closely related, Colombian species. Up to 4m tall and weighing up to 10 tonnes, Columbians were larger than woollies. Both animals had enormous curved tusks.

Living in a warmer climate, south of the sub-Arctic areas frequented by its cousin, the Columbians didn’t need coats. No hair-samples have been found, so they probably resembled modern elephants. Their range over-lapped that off the woolly.

Surviving DNA remnants suggest that the two species interbred occasionally. There may even have been fertile hybrids.

Numbers of all mammoth species declined as the climate of the northern hemisphere changed and the great ice-cap shrunk.

The Columbian mammoth became extinct about 11,500 years ago. Woolly ones were still alive on the Eurasian mainland 2,500 years later and small populations survived on islands for a further 4,000 years.

Retallack maintains that animal tracks sometimes reveal more about an ancient creature’s lifestyle than bones. The brief glimpse into the lives of a mother and her calves, all those millennia ago, is a striking example.

  • G. Retallack et al. Late Pleistocene mammoth track-way from Fossil Lake, Oregon. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 2018.

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