Uncommon historic elephant tracks had our group of fossil specialists stumped – how we solved the thriller

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Over the previous 15 years, by way of our scientific research of tracks and traces, now we have recognized greater than 350 fossil vertebrate tracksites from South Africa’s Cape south coast. Most are present in cemented sand dunes, known as aeolianites, and all are from the Pleistocene Epoch, ranging in age from about 35,000 to 400,000 years.

Throughout that point now we have honed our identification expertise and have change into used to discovering and decoding tracksites – a subject known as ichnology. And but, each now and again, we encounter one thing we instantly realise is so novel that it has been discovered nowhere else on Earth.

Such a second of surprising discovery occurred in 2019 alongside the shoreline of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, about 200km east of Cape City. Lower than two metres away from a cluster of fossil elephant tracks was a spherical characteristic, 57cm in diameter, containing concentric ring options. One other layer was uncovered about 7cm under this floor. It contained not less than 14 parallel groove options. The place the grooves approached the rings, they made a slight curve in direction of them. The 2 findings, we hypothesised, have been linked with one another and appeared to have a standard origin.

Elephants are the biggest, heaviest land animals. They depart giant, deep, simply recognisable tracks. We’ve documented 35 fossilised elephant observe websites in our research space, in addition to the first proof of fossilised elephant trunk-drag impressions.

Elephants, like one other group of large land creatures, dinosaurs, could be seen as geological engineers that create minor earth-moving forces on the bottom they stroll(ed) on. This may be associated additionally to a outstanding capability that elephants possess: speaking by producing seismic waves. These are a type of vitality that may journey below the floor of the Earth.

The characteristic we present in 2019 appeared to replicate simply such a phenomenon: an elephant triggering waves that rippled outwards. After further investigation and an intensive seek for various explanations, we may report in a not too long ago revealed research that we imagine we’ve discovered the world’s first hint fossil signature of seismic, underground communication between elephants.

Elephant seismicity

Because the Nineteen Eighties, an ever-increasing physique of literature has documented “elephant seismicity” and seismic communication by way of infrasound. The decrease threshold of human listening to is 20Hz; under that, low frequency sounds are often called infrasound. Elephant “rumbles”, originating within the larynx and transmitted into the bottom by way of the limbs, fall inside the infrasonic vary.

Infrasound at excessive amplitude (it could appear very loud to us if at a barely increased frequency) can journey additional than excessive frequency sounds, over distances as nice as 6km. Elephants have a bonus right here. Lighter creatures can’t generate low-frequency sound waves by way of vocalisation. It’s thought that long-distance seismic communication can permit elephant teams to work together over substantial distances, and it has been proven that sandy terrain permits the communication to journey furthest.

Learn extra:
Fossil tracks and trunk marks reveal indicators of historic elephants on South Africa’s coast

Persevering with the elephant-dinosaur analogy, we thought of the multitude of publications on dinosaur tracks. We’re conscious of solely a single instance that reveals doable concentric rings inside a observe, from Korea, and none that contain parallel grooves. This implies one thing distinctive about elephants that generates concentric rings inside tracks and results in the related groove options. Elephant rumbling offers a believable rationalization.

A close-up photograph of a rock surface featuring what looks like a deep divot and several indentations.
Parallel traces on an underlying floor curve in direction of a collection of concentric rings in an elephant observe at De Hoop Nature Reserve on South Africa’s Cape south coast.
Charles Helm, Creator offered (no reuse)

In our situation at De Hoop Nature Reserve, we postulate that vibrations from rumbling travelled down the elephant limb and created the concentric ring options. They’re paying homage to among the patterns that change into evident when sprinkling sand onto a vibrating floor. The floor on which the concentric rings seem should have been slightly below the dune floor on the time. The parallel grooves would then signify a hint fossil signature of subsurface communication. We’re not but certain how outdated the hint fossil is; we’ve despatched samples for testing.

A video displaying sand vibrating when it’s uncovered to sound.

Rumblings in rock artwork

Elephant seismicity is a comparatively new subject of research for scientists. Nevertheless, those that have lived near elephants gained’t be shocked on the concept of the animals speaking by way of vibration. Certainly, vibrations from elephant rumblings can generally be felt (relatively than heard) by the astute observer. And it seems that this data isn’t just latest.

The rock artwork specialists on our group have recognized and interpreted rock artwork that means the indigenous San folks appreciated and celebrated this data in southern Africa 1000’s of years in the past. Elephants have been of profound significance to the San and have been prominently featured in their artworks. A number of rock artwork websites seem to include work of elephants in relation to sound or vibration.

For instance, on the Monte Cristo web site within the Cederberg the artist has painted 31 elephants, in a number of teams. They’re in a sensible association. Positive pink traces encompass every elephant; zigzag traces contact the stomach, groin, throat, trunk, and particularly the ft. Many zigzag traces hyperlink the elephant to the bottom. The best traces are closest to the elephants, and each elephant is linked to this set of traces. These are in flip linked to broader traces surrounding the elephant group, which radiate out and away from the elephants as concentric rings.

An image of an elephant drawn on the wall of a cave in vivid reds and oranges

A number of zigzag traces, presumably representing communication between elephants, hyperlink the elephant to the bottom on this rock artwork picture from the Monte Cristo web site in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains.
Andrew Paterson, Creator offered (no reuse)

That is interpreted because the San artist’s possible illustration of seismic communication between elephants. The sensation of shaking and vibration, which the San name thara n|om, is important to the San therapeutic dances, together with the elephant track and elephant dance. Strains of vitality, known as n|om, are thought to be a vibrant life-giving pressure that animates all residing beings and is the supply of all impressed vitality.

We imagine that an understanding of elephant seismicity requires the combination of three our bodies of data: analysis on extant elephant populations, ancestral information (typically manifested in rock artwork) and the hint fossil report.

That elephant seismic communication may depart a hint fossil report has by no means been reported earlier than, and even postulated. Our findings might have the potential to stimulate multi-disciplinary analysis into this subject. This might embrace a devoted seek for sub-surface patterns within the sand within the neighborhood of contemporary rumbling elephants.


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