If you can lead an elephant to water and its tusk is found 325,000 years later in the Arabian Desert, it could mean it was drinking when those sand dunes were once wet and lush.
That’s the speculation after a research team from the University of Oxford and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) discovered a broken 6-foot-long tusk thought to have come from a Palaeoloxodon, more popularly known as the straight-tusked elephant.
The sands where the tusk was discovered date back 325,000 years. Along with a carpal bone found nearby, these fossils are the first evidence that the species roamed the Nefud Desert when its climate was nothing like it is today. Project leader Professor Mike Petraglia describes what was needed to support the Palaeoloxodon to attendees at the recent Green Arabia conference at Oxford University.
“The discovery of the elephant tusk is significant in demonstrating just how much the climate could have changed in the Arabian Desert. Elephants would need huge quantities of roots, grasses, fruit and bark to survive and they would have consumed plenty of water too.”
Before finding the bones, the team studied satellite photos of the Arabian Peninsula and found evidence of a network of rivers and lakebeds. They identified possible source locations for the water and excavated at those sites, one of which contained the Palaeoloxodon bones. In the same sand layer, they also found fossils believed to be from an extinct jaguar, an ancestor of the horse and an oryx, an antelope species which can still be found on the Arabian Peninsula. They also found stone tools nearby which suggests humans took advantage of the water as well.
The satellite images suggest there are tens of thousands of similar archeological sites in the Arabian Desert, so there’s still plenty of work for the researchers on the Palaeodeserts Project, a five-year program that ends in 2016. Perhaps they can find what brought about the climate change that drove the Palaeoloxodon out of the Arabian Desert.