Published: Sat, June 09, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

'Earliest animal fossil footprints discovered in China'

Researchers may have uncovered the oldest fossil footprints on record, dating back to the Ediacaran Period 600 million years ago, in China. There has always been an assumption that they have appeared and radiated unexpectedly in the Cambrian Explosion that took place around 541-510 million years ago.

The rock layers where the fossils were found date between 551 million and 541 million years ago, suggesting the footprints were made some time between those dates.

An worldwide team of scientists, including researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, and Virginia Tech in the United States, conducted the study.

Indeed, we won't know for sure until more fossils are discovered. Carved in limestone, the trackways consist of two rows of imprints arranged in repeated groups. Utah's Red Fleet State Park recently reported that tourists have been ripping up 200-million-year-old dinosaur tracks and tossing them into a reservoir nearby. Known as bilaterian organisms, these animals featured a head, tail, back, and stomach. The members of the research team can't figure out whether the animal has two or more legs but they assume that the footprints may belong to a bilaterian- animals characterized by having paired legs. Bilaterians are a group of animals that have paired appendages - in this case, paired legs. However, without a fossil record, it's hard to make any solid assumptions about the creature. It was after the Cambrian Explosion that the arthropod and other animal life started flourishing there. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today. Those footprints were dated to be between 11,000 and 14,000 years old, making them twice as old as the earliest human civilization.

By looking at the ancient trackway - of which The Guardian has made an animation of, that you can watch below - the team was able to determine that this prehistoric creature had multiple paired feet that raised its body above the ocean floor.

"It is important to know when the first appendages appeared, and in what animals, because this can tell us when and how animals began to change to the Earth in a particular way", Xiao said.

These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence of animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period.

The trackways indicate a connection to burrowing, suggesting that whatever animal this was might have had a habit of digging into sediments and microbial mats.

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