Published: Sat, June 09, 2018
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

Scientists Discover Oldest Known Animal Footprints in Southern China

Scientists Discover Oldest Known Animal Footprints in Southern China

"Previously identified footprints are between 540 and 530 million years old".

This 'explosion' - which ignited some 541 million years ago - saw the rapid emergence of a diversified spread of animal phyla over a period lasting perhaps 25 million years. "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".

The fossil footprints for animal appendages was made in the Ediacaran Period, about 635 to 541 million years ago in China, according to the study. The latest prints date to the Ediacaran period, whose sparse fossil record is populated with soft-tissued creatures including worms and organisms that resembled tiny immobile bags.

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.

That's largely because Ediacaran life hadn't yet evolved the kinds of hard bones and shells that fossilize easily, so scientists usually have to rely on trace fossils instead - burrows, tracks and other secondary evidence of their existence.

The fossilised footprints were discovered by a team of scientists studying trackways and burrows in China.

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Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University examined trackways and burrows in sediment dating back to the Ediacaran Period.

The odd-looking prehistoric trackways show two rows of imprints that resemble a series of repeated footprints, the researchers said. This animal, it's theorised, dug into sediments and microbial mats (layered sheets of microorganisms) in search of food and gulps of oxygen.

The trackways' characteristics indicate that a bilaterian animal - that is, a creature with bilateral symmetry that has a head at one end, a back end at the other, and a symmetrical right and left side - made the tracks. But what they can say, with reasonable certainty, is that the tracks probably belong to a bilaterian.

While bilaterian animals - including arthropods and annelids - were suspected to have first stretched their innovative legs prior to the Cambrian explosion, in what's called the Ediacaran Period, before now there was no evidence for it in the fossil record.

The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Virginia Tech.

As modern arthropods and annelids served as appropriate analogs for the interpretation of this fossil, the researchers posit the animal in question could be the ancestor of either of the two groups.

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