540m-year-old bug tracks are oldest footprints ever discovered

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.

An worldwide team of scientists, including researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, and Virginia Tech in the United States, conducted the study. The latest prints date to the Ediacaran period, whose sparse fossil record is populated with soft-tissued creatures including worms and organisms that resembled tiny immobile bags.

The scientists found the trackways in the Dengying Formation, a site in the Yangtze Gorges area of southern China.

This 'explosion' - which ignited some 541 million years ago - saw the rapid emergence of a diversified spread of animal phyla over a period lasting perhaps 25 million years.

So, what type of creature has left behind its mark all those 550 million years ago in China?

On closer analysis, the team found the marks comprise two rows of imprints that they believe were left by a creature scurrying along a riverbed, at a time when life had not yet colonised dry land.

Well, the team has it narrowed down to a bilaterian animal - a creature with bilateral symmetry, that has a head at one end and the back end at the other, as well as a symmetrical right and left side, Live Science explains. The new findings suggest animals evolved primitive "arms" and "legs" earlier than previously thought.

"We do not know exactly what animals made these footprints, other than that the animals must have been bilaterally symmetric because they had paired appendages", study co-author Shuhai Xiao, a geobiologist from Virginia Tech, told the Independent.

While bilaterian animals - including arthropods and annelids - were suspected to have first stretched their innovative legs prior to the Cambrian explosion, in what's called the Ediacaran Period, before now there was no evidence for it in the fossil record.

'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 characteristics of the trackways indicate that they were produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages that raised the animal body above the water-sediment interface". "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".

"Previously identified footprints are between 540 and 530 million years old", Dr Zhe Chen from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology told MailOnline.

The animal appears to have paused from time to time, since the trackways seem to be connected to burrows that may have been dug into the sediment, perhaps to obtain food.

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