Recently, paleontologists uncovered the world's oldest fossilized footprints.  Found in the Arabian Desert, these tracks proved that prehistoric elephants travelled in herds.  The Science Center had the opportunity to interview Dr. Brian Kraatz, one of the researchers on the project to get his perspective.

How do trackways become so well preserved?  Don't other animals follow in these paths as well?

Whether tracks get preserved as fossils depends on what happens to the sediments after the animals walked through them. In our case, they walked through a mud plain, which likely dried into a hard surface shortly thereafter. They may have been buried by more sediments shortly thereafter, which kept them safe from erosional process. They were probably re-rexposed sometimes in the last 10,000 years.

What was the Mleisa 1 site like when these creatures were alive?  Did it still look like a desert?

It wasn't a desert. Along with the elephant ancestors that made the tracks, we know there were many other animals (e.g., giraffes, crocodiles, fish, ostriches, etc.) that lived in a large river system that was present there around 7 million years ago.

How do you think aerial photography and hi-res satellite data will influence the way we dig for fossils in the future?   Will we begin relying more on Google Maps as a tool for paleontology?

We already rely heavily on Google earth and aerial photography. Geologic maps can tell us what types of rocks are present in an area, but satellite imagery tells us where there are exposed rocks from which fossils might be weathering out. We often do a lot of preliminary reconnaissance via Google Earth before we go into the field.

Prehistoric elephants and mastodons lived here in Florida, too, but why doesn't it seem like we find their footprints as often as the researchers in the UAE?

The preservation of fossil footprints is rare, and preservation like we describe in the United Arab Emirates, which included an entire herd of elephants, has never been reported before.

When did you become interested in paleontology, and how did you decide to follow that into a career?

I'm in the minority in that I was never interested in fossils growing up. I started college as an art and english major, but ended up doing a degree in Geology as I liked the challenges of trying to understand past events. After college, I volunteered at a large Natural History museum, and was fortunate enough to work with a paleontologists who mentored me and got me started working on fossils from Mongolia. After that, I was hooked, and went on to receive an MS and PhD in paleontology.


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