Impressions from a bygone era fossilised footprints of elephants in the Mleisa in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.
Elephant footprints in the UAE. Believe it or not, that was precisely what archaeologists found in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.

The footprints date back millions of years ago when the huge animals roamed the Arabian desert when it was a vast expanse of green plains and rivers.

At first archaeologists were sceptical when told of an area containing "dinosaur" footprints.

But on checking it they were excited to find instead fossilised prints left by hundreds of elephants and other animals dating back between six and eight million years – the first of its kind to be discovered in the Arabian Peninsula.

The team from the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (Adias) found three sites with footprints in the Baynunah region, east of Ghiyathi. The main site, at Mleisa, is in the middle of a levelled whitish stone oval-shaped plain.

site after hearing of a place with 'dinosaur footprints' from a UAE national, Mubarak bin Rashid bin Mubarak Al Mansouri, Public Relations and Transport Coordinator for the Jebel Dhanna terminal of the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (Adco).

"We were initially sceptical. The rocks in the Baynunah area are much younger than the Age of Dinosaurs. But when Al Mansouri led our team to the site, we were amazed to find that there were, indeed, footprints crossing the rocky plain. They are of animals that lived many, many million years after the last dinosaur, but they are of major international scientific importance".

Research by Will Higgs, from the University of Bradford, UK, and Dr Mark Beech, Adias Senior Resident Archaeologist (Research Fellow at the University of York, UK), suggested the animals which made tracks were probably larger than the elephants of today.

For comparison, the tracks of three female Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were recorded at Blackpool Zoo in the UK in March this year.

According to Adias, these elephants had a shoulder height of about 2.5 metres. Comparison of the walking pattern of the modern elephants and of the fossil footprints suggested the ancient elephants must have been significantly larger than their modern Asian counterparts, perhaps with a shoulder height of three metres or more.

Preliminary examination of the rock with the footprints suggested it may be similar in age to other rocks with the well-known Miocene fossils, known at other sites in the Western Region, such as Jebel Barakah, Jebel Dhanna, Ruwais and Shuwaihat.

Extensive collections of fossils have been made from a number of these sites, particularly of proboscidean (early elephant) bones.

In November 2002 and in February 2003, an Adias team found two fossil elephant tusks, one 2.54 metres long and the other 1.9 metres long, at a site near Ruwais.

The Mleisa fossil footprints, according to Adias, may have been made by a similar animal, perhaps an early elephant known as Stegotetrabelodon Syrticus, which had four tusks, unlike the two-tusk elephants of today.

"There are also traces of other tracks made by antelopes and other smaller animals at one of the Mleisa sites. At the time these tracks were made in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi this area was a land of rivers and plains, rather like today's savannahs of East Africa," said Hellyer.

According to Dr Beech, the Mleisa track-ways and other fossil sites in the Western Region provide a unique opportunity to study Abu Dhabi, as it was six to eight million years ago.

The study, being coordinated by Adias in association with ERWDA, will later lead to an exhibition of some of the major fossil finds.