In 2013, paleontologist Bill Sanders from the University of Michigan received an intriguing invitation. An international team of researchers studying fossils in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates had uncovered something in the desert they wanted him to see.

Sanders had devoted his career since the 1980s to investigating proboscideans, the order of huge plant-eating mammals that includes elephants and their extinct relatives.

Venturing into the arid landscape with his colleagues, he soon understood why they were so excited to share their discovery.

Preserved in the carbonate-rich sediments was a series of enormous footprints left behind by a herd of elephants that walked through this area millions of years ago. Stretching over an expanse the size of three football fields, the fossilized tracks were plainly visible, recalled Sanders.

Examining them closely, he was able to deduce key details about the elephants’ behavior at the time. One set belonged to a family group led by a matriarchal female.

Interspersed amongst theirs was a solitary trail made by a large male, who had briefly crossed paths with the herd on his wanderings before continuing on alone.

The insight into long-lost elephant social dynamics profoundly moved Sanders. This rare glimpse into their prehistoric lives through fossil footprints revealed aspects of proboscidean evolution he had never directly witnessed until that serendipitous moment in the desert.

It inspired him to devote eight years to comprehensively documenting their entire lineage. His extensive research tracing proboscideans’ development and geographical spread over 60 million years was published in a definitive book on the Evolution and Fossil Record of African Proboscideans.

Unfortunately, over the course of Sanders’ project the modern elephant populations he was chronicling also underwent a catastrophic decline and may soon disappear altogether without urgent action.

If we are unable to protect animals as enormous and adaptable as elephants, it indicates grave threats to the stability of life on our planet, he warned.

Their precarious future only amplified the significance of understanding proboscideans’ rich evolutionary history and indispensable ecological role.

However, the unforeseen interactions that first began unfolding during the times ancient elephant ancestors crossed this same desert landscape so long ago have now tragically come full circle.


University of Michigan

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