Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

World's Oldest Footprints Discovered on Ancient Seafloor

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

Created before the Cambrian Explosion-a sudden burst in animal diversity that took place about 541 million years ago-scientists think these are the oldest trackways ever discovered on Earth.

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".

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.

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.

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. "They consist of two rows of imprints arranged in poorly organized series or repeated groups", the researchers wrote in their paper. That's hundreds of millions of years before dinosaurs started roaming Earth, about 245 million years ago.

However, this creature - which provides the earliest evidence of an animal with legs - would have existed around 10 million years before then. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.

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"This is considered the earliest animal fossil footprint record", said the report in the USA journal, Science Advances. 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.

"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)". "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".

While science has previously recorded that bilaterian animals, such as arthropods and annelid worms, first emerged during the "Cambrian Explosion" (541 to 510 million years ago), this finding proves that these creatures actually evolved earlier, confirming the suspicion shared by some researchers.

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.

Trackways and burrows excavated in situ from the Ediacaran Dengying Formation.

"The trackways appear to be connected to burrows, suggesting that the animals may have periodically dug into sediments and microbial mats, perhaps to mine oxygen and food".

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