Oldest 'footprints' found in China

The oldest known "footprints" left by an animal have been uncovered in southern China.

The trackways were found in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China.

The Chinese and American team led by Dr Shuhai Xiao, from Virginia Tech in the U.S., wrote in the journal Science Advances: "The irregular arrangement of tracks in the trackways may be taken as evidence that the movement of their trace maker's appendages was poorly coordinated and is distinct from the highly coordinated metachronal (wave-like) rhythm typical of modern arthropods".

No body fossils for these animals have been found yet, however, and the scientists believe such remnants may not have been preserved.

The fossils date to the Ediacaran Period, which was between 635 to 541 million years ago.

It is unclear what kind of tiny creature left the tracks, which lie just a few millimetres apart and look like a two rows of shallow depressions, or holes, marked in the dark grey limestone.

The presence of paired appendages (a primitive version of legs and arms) in the anatomy of this prehistoric creature is mirrored in the way the fossil footprints are laid out, Xiao explains.

"The footprints are organized in two parallel rows, as expected if they were made by animals with paired appendages".

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

Animals with bilaterally paired appengages are assumed to have appeared during the Cambrian Explosion, but now their ancestry may be traceable to even further back in history. They are often assumed to have appeared and radiated suddenly during the "Cambrian Explosion" about 541-510 million years ago, although it has always been suspected that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period.

Prior to this, animal life on Earth consisted of simpler, single-celled or multicellular organisms, but the Cambrian Period gave rise to more complex creatures of a kind we recognise today, including bilaterian animals, who exhibited the first bilateral symmetry.

The ancient trackways and burrows are pictured.

These legs raised the animal's body above the sediment it was moving across.

"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 the Earth in a particular way."

"Previously identified footprints are between 540 and 530 million years old". This means that the mystery animal might have periodically dug into the ocean floor's sediments and microbial matts, possibly to mine for oxygen and food, the researchers said.

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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