Published: Sat, June 09, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Oldest animal fossil footprint on record discovered in China


Scientists discovered the oldest footprint known so far in an ancient seafloor in China.

An worldwide team of scientists has reported the discovery of oldest footprints ever found on Earth, which was left behind by a mysterious animal that roamed our planet sometime between 541 and 551 million years ago - way before many known animals, including dinosaurs, thrived and became extinct.

The tracks could be from 10 million years before the Cambrian Explosion, a sudden explosion in biodiversity almost half a billion years ago.

The fossils, which were found in the Yangtze Gorges area of south China, lie between two rock layers that have been radiocarbon-dated to 551m and 541m years old, meaning the footprints were made sometime between these dates.

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.

In other words, this prehistoric critter wasn't a biped like you or me, but perhaps something with multiple paired legs - such as a spider, or a centipede - although given we have so little to go upon, the researchers emphasise it's impossible to know for sure what specific form this early walker embodied.

The trackways are irregular, the scientists found, with two rows of imprints that suggest they were created by a bilaterian animal whose appendages raised it above the ground.

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So, what type of creature has left behind its mark all those 550 million years ago in China? Researchers say that these prints were made by creatures with appendages and this discovery is proof that there were indeed animals with limbs in the Ediacaran period.

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.

"Unless the animal died and [was] preserved next to its footprints, it is hard to say with confidence who made the footprints".

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

The Ediacaran Period happened before the Cambrian Explosion, which is when life on Earth began to increase and diversified.

"Ediacaran trace fossils provide key paleontological evidence for the evolution of early animals and their behaviors", researchers write in their study.

The ancient trackways and burrows are pictured. Among other things, it is also worth noting the trackways appear connected to the burrows, something that indicated the animals probably dug into the sediments in order to consume food or oxygen.

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