Research on the only skeleton of a calf of straight-tusked elephant in Europe

Palaeoloxodon antiquus. Author: Almudena Yagüe.
Palaeoloxodon antiquus. Author: Almudena Yagüe.

UB researchers Montserrat Sanz and Joan Daura have studied the only remains of a calf in Europe, a species known as the straight-tusked elephant: Palaeoloxodon antiquus. The study has been carried out jointly with Maria Rita Palombo, of the Sapienza University of Rome and researcher at the Institute of Environmental Geology and Geoengineering of the National Research Council of Italy (CNR). This is a 5-year old specimen that weighed 1500 kg, and lived 120,000 years ago. Its remains were found in Cueva del Rinoceronte (Castelldefels), a site with abundant remains of species from the latest warm or interglacial moment, such as the case of the straight-tusked elephant, which disappeared with the arrival of the last glacial period.

Although there are some remains of adult Palaeoloxon antiquus in Europe, remains of calves are scarce and correspond to isolated bones, so those in Cueva del Rinoceronte are the only complete skeleton found to date. The individual of Cueva del Rinoceronte was likely to die in the cave where it might have fallen accidentally. This is why the bones are in anatomical position and the complete skeleton has been recovered.

The findings have been especially useful to the researchers for studying related aspects to the growth of elephants. It is difficult to establish the age of these animals, because they follow a slow growth, their skeleton continues to grow during adulthood and they change their teeth up to five times over their life. "In the one we analysed, we can see, for instance, that each femur presents a different growing state, that is, we observe a variation in the individual itself. Therefore, the current criterion used to determine the age of fossil elephants with the state of bone fusion cannot be regarded as reliable", note the experts.

The study shows the relevance of the site of Cueva del Rinoceronte, which corresponds to a chronological moment which is not well-known in the Iberian Peninsula, and the Mediterranean basin. "We know how the fauna and environment were in the last glaciation, specially by looking at animal species coming from septentrional latitudes, such as the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, but there isn’t much information about the species that lived before them", note Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz, researchers at the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar ( SERP ). "The archaeological site of Cueva del Rinoceronte is an important file for the study of this last warm or interglacial moment, with the presence of species that disappeared in the last glacial period, such as the straight-tusked elephant", the experts note.

At the moment, the found elephant is exhibited in the Espacio Prehistoria: fauna, cambio climático y arqueología in Garraf, in the library Ramón Fernàndez Jurado in Castelldefels.

The results of this research in Cueva del Rinoceronte are now published in Quarternary Science Reviews and take place in the framework of a research project approved and funded by the Department of Culture of the Catalan Government. The town council of Castelldefels has funded the restoration of the skeleton, the exhibition and the field work.

Reference article: Maria Rita Palombo, Montserrat Sanz, Joan Daura. "The complete skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant calf from Cova del Rinoceront (Late Pleistocene, NE Iberian Peninsula): new insights into ontogenetic growth in Palaeoloxodon antiquus", Quaternary Science Reviews, November , 2021. Doi:­uascirev.2­021.107257