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The fossilised hoofprints of a giant zebra that lived some 10,000 years ago have been found preserved in ancient dunes near the coast of South Africa. The Giant Cape Zebra — Equus capensis — is estimated to have weighed in at a considerable 992 lbs. For comparison, the plains zebra seen today in southern Africa tends to reach only 550–660 lbs. Palaeontologists believe that E. capensis went extinct in part due to the loss of its preferred grassland habitat as rising sea levels flooded the vast Agulhas Plain.
The study was undertaken by Dr Charles Helm of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University and his colleagues.
Writing in the Conversation, Dr Helm said: “Until now, it hasn’t been clear how common the [Giant Cape Zebra] was on the Cape south coast because its body fossil are predominantly from southern Africa’s west coast.
“That’s where ichnology — the study of tracks and traces — comes in. Since 2007, our team has documented more than 350 fossil vertebrate tracksuits along a 350 kilometre [217 mile] stretch of the Cape south coast.
“Now, by studying the tracks left by those galloping, walking and trotting zebra so long ago, we’re able to say that they must have been a fairly regular sight on the landscape of the Cape south coast — and were more common than was suggested by the body fossil record in the area.”
In their recent investigation, the researchers describe 26 equid tracksites — among which were included prints believed to have been left by the Giant Cape Zebra — preserved in cemented dunes along the Cape south coast near towns like Still Bay and Plettenberg Bay.
Dr Helm said: “This is especially exciting because equid tracks dating to the Pleistocene epoch — which started 2.6 million years ago and ended around 11,700 years ago — are rare.
“In fact, our finds mean that the Cape south coast accounts for the majority of the sites known globally from this time period.”
Other known equid tracksites are located in the Americas, on the Arabian Peninsula, in Ethiopia, Italy and Kenya.
According to the researchers, 13 of the tracksuits found contain tracks that are 4.7 inches or greater in length, while eight sport tracks that are 3.9 inches long or less.
It was not possible, the team noted, to access the tracks to measure them at the remaining five sites.
Dr Helm said: “Well-preserved equid tracks are fairly distinctive: features include an unbroken hoof wall and what is known as a ‘frog’ towards the centre of the track.”
These “frogs” are triangular features created by structure of dense tissue that extends from the rear edge of the foot to the the centre of the hoof.
Dr Held added: “We were able to attribute the large tracks to Equus capensis, and the small tracks to the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), the plains zebra subspecies that became extinct in the 19th century.”
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Analysis of the tracksuits has dated them to between 161,000 and 43,000 years ago.
According to Dr Held, one of the Giant Cape Zebra sites contains a single trackway with 12 tracks.
He added: “Another contains two probable quagga trackways that intersect at right angles, respectively containing ten and six tracks.We informally dubbed this the ‘zebra crossing’!
“Such long fossil equid trackways are especially rare, as equids are often gregarious (resulting in trampled areas) and isolated trackways are unusual.”
As Dr Held notes, the finest-known equid trackway — a 50,000-year-old set of 28 tracks — was found in Nevada, in the US. However, this was covered during the construction of a prison in the 1930s, and is thus no longer accessible to study.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Quaternary Research.
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