Published: Thu, June 07, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Earliest animal footprints found in China, says study


The trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups.

That's why these Dengying track marks are a big deal for our understanding of evolutionary history - one small step for a bilaterian perhaps, but one giant leap for animal kind.

Trackways and burrows excavated in situ from the Ediacaran Dengying Formation. This sea-dwelling animal had paired appendages that raised its body above the ocean floor, the footprints left behind by its multiple feet suggest.

Both the footprints and the borrows are known as "trace fossils", a term that refers to fossilized remnants that animals leave behind, such as fossilized poop, rather than fossils of the animals themselves.

An worldwide 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.

The findings are reported in Science Advances.

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"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", the Chinese and American team led by Dr Shuhai Xiao, from Virginia Tech in the United States, wrote in the journal Science Advances. 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.

Bilaterian animals such as arthropods and annelids have paired appendages and are among the most diverse animals today and in the geological past.

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.

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.

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

The fossils are just a few millimetres in width and Xiao's team spotted them after painstakingly tilting rock slabs at different angles so the sunlight would illuminate any subtle traces left by ancient bugs.

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