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Footprints Website by Will Higgs: Palaeontological section

Proboscidian (Elephant Family)

Stegotetrabelodon syrticus

Fossil Proboscidean trackway

Photo: Dan Hull

Stegotetrabelodon syrticus was an elephant-like animal whose rare fossil remains have been found in North Africa and Arabia. These animals lived around 6-8 million years ago at the end of the Miocene period and are only distantly related to modern elephants, in the same way that 3-million-year-old hominoids such as "Lucy" from East Africa may be remote ancestors of modern humans. S. syrticus, for instance, had four tusks - two in the top jaw and two in the bottom - and seems to have been somewhat larger than modern elephants, judging from the track measurements (see below).

First noticed by local people, this trackway in the United Arab Emirates was recorded by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS). The main assemblage consists of roughly parallel tracks made by a group of Proboscideans probably travelling together, but the precise number is difficult to ascertain. A single, much larger track (track 1), interpreted as a lone male, crosses them.

The shapeless footprints are difficult to interpret and there seem to be multiple layers of sediment which contain footprints, or possibly "underprints" which are impressions made on layers below the surface by the animals' weight. Also, walking quadrupeds tend to place the hind foot in the same position as the corresponding front, resulting in superimposed double imprints and adding to the difficulty of interpretation.

The trackway is in a level ancient ground surface, which seems from the preserved polygonal cracking to have dried out after being wet. It may have been a similar environment to the present-day low-lying sabkha areas of the southern Gulf coast where salt flats are occasionally inundated by high tides or heavy rain.

Impressive as the trackway is to even the most casual observer, it is of particular interest to the palaeontologist because fossil bones and tusks of S. syrticus have been found in the same strata within a few tens of kilometres. Fossil footprints of, for instance, Dinosaurs, are usually almost impossible to link to a fossil species because bones are rarely fossilised in the same terrestrial environments as footprints. In this case, however, Proboscidean fossils recently found in Abu Dhabi Emirate seem to have been preserved nearby by burial in the silts of a large river flowing through the otherwise arid Miocene landscape.


SiteMleisa, western Abu Dhabi Emirate
SubstrateProbably soft saline silt at the time of imprinting, now indurated light-grey marl (calcareous mudstone)
Age of SubstrateLate-Miocene (6-8myr)
Estimated GaitWalk
IdentificationVery large sub-circular imprints with appropriate stride, too late for Dinosaur.
Held byin situ
Links Mleisa page from the ADIAS website. Contains a comprehensive list of useful links.
ReferencesHiggs, W., Kirkham, A., Evans, G. & Hull, D. 2003. "A Late Miocene Proboscidean Trackway from Western Abu Dhabi"; Tribulus 13.2, pp 3-8 ( pdf )
MEASUREMENTSTrack measurements of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) were taken at Blackpool Zoo.
Mleisa track 1 (cm)306173128
Mleisa track 2267136  86
Mleisa track 3264137  94
Elephas maximus (mean of 3) 241127  77