It is very seldom that paleontologists find vertebrate trace fossils depicting the interaction between a predator and its prey. But the footprints uncovered 10 years ago at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico do just that, reveals a new study.
The series of footprints (also known as a trackway) found at White Sands belong to a giant ground sloth, a massive, eight-foot tall creature with wolverine-like claws, that went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene era — colloquially referred to as the Ice Age.
Contrary to what you might expect, the tracks reveal that this fearsome giant ground sloth was not the one pursuing its next meal; in fact, the imposing animal was the one being hunted, and by ancient humans no less.
The White Sands trackway contains a large number of human footprints, some of them found inside the larger footprints of the giant ground sloth, others discovered further away, at a safe distance.
According to David Bustos, the park naturalist who stumbled upon the tracks in 2008, this suggests that someone stalked the giant ground sloth, purposely stepping in their tracks as they did so.
The study, published yesterday in the journal Science Advances, compared the two types of footprints, detailing that they were made at the same time from a geological standpoint and that “the sloth trackways show evidence of evasion and defensive behavior when associated with human tracks.”
Fossilized human footprint found nestled in a giant sloth footprint. An incredibly preserved set of tracks tell the story of an ancient hunt. @bournemouthuni @TheAtlantichttps://t.co/COuxFbCEJf pic.twitter.com/Vk2KnLUQPl
— CARTAUCSD (@CARTAUCSD) April 25, 2018
“We see interesting circles of sloth tracks in these stalked trackways which we call ‘flailing circles’,” research leader Matthew Bennett, from Bournemouth University in England, said in a news release issued by the National Park Service.
“These record the rise of the sloth on its hind legs and the swing of its fore-legs presumably in a defensive motion,” Bennett explained.
The White Sands trackway portrays the interaction between humans and megafauna and might be the first to reveal how ancient humans tackled large prey, Science Magazine reports. The large array of human footprints accompanying the animal tracks show that the hunting party chasing this dangerous and enormous beast may have been using distraction and misdirection to overpower the giant ground sloth.
“We also see human tracks on tip-toes approach these circles; was this someone approaching with stealth to deliver a killer blow while the sloth was being distracted? We believe so,” said Bennett.
The new footprint track site shows humans stalking giant sloths in White Sands New Mexico, where they stepped INTO the sloth print…find out more here! https://t.co/VNXMxgkn9L
— Kate Thompson (@ke_thompson) April 25, 2018
Bustos also found footprints of children and assembled crowds positioned at a safe distance from the animal, which indicates the group may have been working together to distract the giant sloth so that the hunter stalking it could catch the animal off guard.
The team used a technique called relative dating to estimate the age of the footprints and discovered that they date back to at least 11,700 years ago and maybe even older.
Fossil records show that giant ground sloths became extinct around the same period in time, the International Business Times notes
Science Magazine argues that the dramatic scene captured by the White Sands trackway could be an indication of ancient humans’ contribution to the extinction of large mammals, such as giant sloths, mammoths, and mastodons, at the end of the Ice Age.