At Least 541 Million Years, Earliest Animal Footprints Found

"At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods, such as bumblebees; annelids, such as bristle worms; and tetrapods, such as humans)", Chen added.

Previously, scientists had discovered footprints as old as 530-540m years, but none predating the Cambrian period, which also began at this time and marked an explosion in the diversity and complexity of life on Earth.

The Ediacaran-era (541- 635 million years ago) prints were found by researchers from Chinese Academy of Sciences' Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and Virginia Tech in the United States during a study of tracks and burrows spotted at the Dengying Formation, a fossil-rich site near the Yangtze Gorges area of southern China.

Because the footprints are trace fossils, not fossils of the animal itself, it's going to be hard to credit a particular branch of the Tree of Life with the title of "First to Develop Limbs".

They said they don't know exactly what species the footprints belong to, but described the creature as a bilaterian animal, like an arthropod.

Recently, an global research team reported discovering fossil footprints for animal appendages in the Ediacaran Period (about 635-541 million years ago) in China.

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This places them perhaps even 10 million years before the "Cambrian Explosion" (roughly 541 million years ago), the moment in time which sparked the incredible evolution of life that led to the fantastic diversity of species that we see today.

They analysed the trackways in rock, usually created when an animal's weight causes a depression in the ground which is later filled in by a different sediment.

"The footprints are organised in two parallel rows, as expected if they were made by animals with paired appendages. The new fossils are probably up to 10 million years older", the study's co-author Zhe Chen, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told AFP. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today. The body fossils of the animals that made these traces, however, have not yet been found.

Still, due to the proximity of the track marks to fossilised burrows discovered nearby, the researchers hypothesise the creature may have exhibited "complex behaviour", such as periodically digging into sediments to mine oxygen and food among its riverbed habitat.

"Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities".

"These trace fossils include burrows and possible trackways that are preserved in close proximity and are apparently connected", the scientists noted in an introduction to the report.

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