Columbian Mammoth Charles Knight

Columbian Mammoths were the largest of mammoth species, and contrary to this early 1900 depiction by famed artist Charles Knight, were almost as “bald” as modern elephants. They are found in Ice Age deposits in Oregon, as well as Florida, southern California, and elsewhere.

A 43,000 year-old fossilized trackway on public lands in Lake County, Oregon, may reveal clues about the ancient family dynamics of Columbian mammoths.

Recently excavated by a team from the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the Bureau of Land Management and the University of Louisiana, the trackway includes 117 footprints thought to represent a number of adults as well as juvenile and infant mammoths.

The tracks were discovered by paleontologist Greg Retallack during a 2014 class field trip to study fossils. Now this Ice Age trackway is the focus of a new study. The trackway seems to document the trip of a family across a wet and slightly muddy area.

Retallack returned to the site with the study’s coauthors, including UO science librarian Dean Walton, in 2017. The team zeroed in on a 20-footprint track, dating to roughly 43,000 years ago, that exhibited some intriguing features.

“These prints were especially close together, and those on the right were more deeply impressed than those on the left-as if an adult mammoth had been limping,” said Retallack, also a professor in the UO Department of Earth Sciences and the study’s lead author.

But, as the study reveals, the limping animal wasn’t alone: Two sets of smaller footprints appeared to be approaching and retreating from the limper’s trackway.

“These juveniles may have been interacting with an injured adult female, returning to her repeatedly throughout the journey, possibly out of concern for her slow progress,” Retallack said. “Such behavior has been observed with wounded adults in modern, matriarchal herds of African elephants.”

The tracks were made in a layer of volcanic soil at Fossil Lake, a site first excavated by UO science professor Thomas Condon in 1876 and today administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

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