Were Prehistoric Herds of Elephants Led by Females?

ElephantsModern elephants live in matriarchal groups where females and the young are led by a female. This is after the males, having reached sexual maturity, leave the herd. Both African and Asian elephants exist in intricate matriarchal groups. This lifestyle coincides with hypotheses that 5–7 million years ago these mammals’ ancestors lived in female-led herds.

This hypothesis has been strengthened by an extraordinary discovery. A 260-meter-long path of footprints going back 7 million years indicates a herd of prehistoric elephants walked through mud in the Arabian Desert, leaving significant signs of social life. As in modern behavior, mature males appear to have wondered off, leaving the remaining herd to care for itself, apparently under the leadership of a female.

These prints, the most extensive ever recorded for mammals, were made by at least 13 proboscidians (the order that includes living elephants and extinct families) of different sizes. That suggests that ancient elephants have always lived in sex-segregated groups. It also implies mature males rejoined the herd only to mate.

The evidence reveals prehistoric elephants crossed the landscape at Mleisa 1 in Abu Dhabi’s Al Gharbia region. Utilizing a kite-mounted camera, researchers studied the prints’ depths and stride lengths. They used this data to determine body weight and, in some cases, by comparing stride lengths with living elephants, sex. It was how scientists determined that solitary male elephants moved away from the herd.

Capturing the activities of large animals from millions of years ago offers clear interpretation of modern animal behavior. The contrast in size and mass of the varying prints, demonstrating the male elephant walked alone, leaves the distinct impression that circumstance forced a matriarchal hierarchy.

The next step is to see how far this behavior stretches in prehistory, and test whether ancestral Asian and African elephants lived in matriarchal herds. If the footprints were made by particularly primitive proboscidians, it could reasonably confirm this behavior was not exclusive to elephants.

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