Oldest 'footprints' found in China

"Although the exact identity of the trace maker of the Shibantan trackways is hard to determine in the absence of body remains at the end of the trackways, we suggest that the trace maker was probably a bilaterian animal with paired appendages", the authors reported.

An global research team discovered the fossil tracks in China dating back to the Ediacaran Period, just before the Cambrian Explosion when life on Earth increased rapidly.

Researchers on the study came from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Virginia Tech in the United States.

The scientists found the trackways in the Dengying Formation, a site in the Yangtze Gorges area of southern China. This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record.

These trace fossils represent some of the earliest known evidence for animal appendages and extend the earliest trace fossil record of animals with appendages from the early Cambrian to the late Ediacaran Period. That's hundreds of millions of years before dinosaurs started roaming Earth, about 245 million years ago. As the Inquisitr previously reported, up until that historic event, which lasted for 20-25 million years and gave rise to most of the major animal groups on the planet, animal life on Earth was limited to simpler, single-celled or multicellular organisms.

Until now, it was thought that bilaterian animals, such as arthropods and annelid worms, first appeared during the Cambrian explosion, between 541 million and 510 million years ago, although some scientists suspected that these animals evolved earlier.

The authors can't tell exactly what kind of animal made the tracks, but they can narrow it down to something with pairs of matching legs.

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"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", one of the researchers, geobiologist Shuhai Xiao from Virginia Tech University, told The Guardian.

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. "Also, they are organized in repeated groups, as expected if the animal had multiple paired appendages".

The ancient trackways and burrows are pictured.

The trackways appear to be connected to burrows, suggesting that the animals may have periodically dug into sediments, perhaps to mine oxygen and food.

The scientists are unsure whether the creature had many legs or just two, and whether it was a member of the arthropod group, which includes bumblebees and spiders, or annelids, which contains modern-day bristle worms.

Now, the discovery of the trackways and burrows shows that animals with appendages lived during the Ediacaran period, the researchers said.

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