Published: Sat, June 09, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Oldest 'footprints' found in China

Previously no evidence of limbed animals has been found that pre-dates the "Cambrian Explosion", the sudden surge in diversity that occurred on Earth about 510 to 541 million years ago.

The tracks are from the Ediacaran Period, making them the first prints left by animals from that period.

The identity of the creature that made the 546-million-year-old tracks is still unknown, but they come from the period when the earliest animals are thought to have evolved.

Life during the Ediacaran was characterized by algae, lichens, giant protozoans, worms, and various bacteria, but there's still a lot that paleontologists don't know about it. New research published this week in Science Advances reveals the fossilised footprints left by one of these early creatures, and it's considered the oldest known trackway made by a bilaterian creature with paired appendages.

This remarkable discovery is hailed in a study, published yesterday in the journal Science Advances by a research team from Virginia Tech University in the USA and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

These trackways were found in the Dengying Formation - a site in the Yangtze Gorge area of southern China.

They took a close look at the irregular trackways and witnessed two parallel rows of footprints, which appeared to have been arranged in a series or repeated groups.

This means it has paired appendages, and may have been a burrowing creature.

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No body fossils for these animals have been found yet, however, and the scientists believe such remnants may not have been preserved.

"The rock that contains the fossil has been very well dated between 551 and 541 million years old", study author Zhe Chen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Agence France-Presse in an email.

All that the prints suggest was they were formed by some kind of bilaterian animal which had multiple paired appendages, like arthropods and annelids, to raise its body above the water-sediment interface.

The Cambrian Period marks the time in the fossil record when most major groups of animals first appeared.

'Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities.

It also seems that the tracks are somehow connected to the burrows, suggesting that whichever animal this might have been, they had a tendency of digging into sediments and microbial mats, most probably in order to search for food and oxygen.

The researchers don't yet know exactly what animal left these tracks, and unfortunately we may never know.

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