Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Earliest animal footprints found in China

That leaves a mystery about what kind of animal left the tracks.

Scientists in China believe tracks left by tiny animals that crawled in sea-shore mud around 550 million years ago are the oldest footprints on Earth.

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

The Chinese and American team led by Dr Shuhai Xiao, from Virginia Tech in the USA, 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". This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record.

The study was published online today (June 6) in the journal Science Advances.

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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 trackways are somewhat irregular, consisting of two rows of imprints that are arranged in series or repeated groups", explained notes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to the researchers, this is the first evidence that bilaterian animals existed before the "Cambrian Explosion".

Prior to this discovery, it was suspected that animals with legs first appeared during this period, but no evidence had ever been found.

Professor Shuhai Xiao, senior author of the study and geobiologist at Virginia Tech University, said their findings allow them to understand what species were first to evolve with legs.

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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.

By looking at the ancient trackway - of which The Guardian has made an animation of, that you can watch below - the team was able to determine that this prehistoric creature had multiple paired feet that raised its body above the ocean floor.

"Together, these trackways and burrows mark the arrival of a new era characterized by an increasing geobiological footprint of bilaterian animals", the researchers point out.

'At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods such as bumble bees, annelids such as bristle worms, and tetrapods such as humans)', said Dr Chen. The trackways also appear to be connected to burrows, suggesting the creatures periodically tunnelled down into the sediments, perhaps to mine oxygen and microbes as food.

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