Posted: 13 Feb 2018 08:41 PM PST
A team of scientists have unearthed a Pleistocene-era Columbian mammoth trackway at Fossil Lake, Oregon. The fossilized footprints are about 43,000 years old and include tracks left in the volcanic soil by adult, juvenile and infant mammoths. There are 117 footprints, a large enough number and wide enough range of ages that studying the track will lend new insight into how mammoths interacted with each other as a herd.
The first footprints were discovered in 2014 by paleontologist Greg Retallack of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History during a field trip with UO students to study fossil plants. The site is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, so last year BLM researchers partnered with researchers from the University of Oregon (including Retallack) and University of Louisiana researchers to explore the trackway.
The team also studied the soil layers at the trackway site. It appears the climate and plants in the Fossil Lakes area in the Ice Age were not dissimilar to its modern counterpart, although the lakes were larger, it was drier in the summer and precipitation was higher in the winter. There was also more lowland grassland, one of the Columbian mammoth’s preferred foods. The mammoths and other grass-eaters (a prehistoric horse print was also found at the trackway) were essential to the grassland ecosystem. They fertilized it with their dung and suppressed other plants by trampling and uprooting them during grazing. It’s likely that the fertile grassland of the Ice Age succumbed to desertification after the extinction of the mammoths and other large native grass-eaters 11,500 years ago. Hence the dry lake beds and their precious cargo of fossils.
There are some killer drone’s eye views of the trackway and the wild dessert beauty of the Fossil Lake area in this video:
The study, still in the corrected proof stage, is available for purchase here.
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