A lone bull walks away from a Stegotretrabelodon herd in an illustration based on new analyses of seven-million-year-old footprints.
Stegotretabelodon is a primitive elephant that was roughly the same size as a modern-day African elephant—although Stegotretabelodon males had two sets of tusks (as seen above).
Fossil evidence shows that the giant beasts were once widespread in the Arabian Peninsula, including the present-day United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the tracks were found. (Also see "Huge New Dinosaur Trackway Found in U.S.")
Though scientists can't be sure the ancient tracks were left by Stegotretabelodon, it's the most likely scenario, considering the animals' former abundance in the region, said study co-author Brian Kraatz, an assistant professor of anatomy at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California.
Scientists had previously discovered the tracks and published a preliminary report, Kraatz said. For the new study, the team deployed a camera-equipped kite that took the first photographs of the footprints from the air. From those images, the researchers stitched together a detailed photomosaic of the trackway—one of the largest known in the world, according to the study, which was published February 22 in the journal Biology Letters.
Kraatz recalled seeing an early version of the mosaic after arriving at his hotel in the UAE late one night.
"As soon as I sat down and looked at [the mosaic], it was instantly obvious it was a herd of elephants walking together," he said. "When you see it from the air, it just crystallizes."