Earliest animal footprints found in China

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.

Previously, scientists had discovered footprints as old as 530-540m years, but none predating the Cambrian period, which also began at this time and marked an explosion in the diversity and complexity of life on Earth.

The shape of the tracks suggest they were made by bilaterian animals with pairs of legs and a raised body.

An global team of scientists found that the fossil of an animal appendage dates back to the Ediacaran period, sometime between 541 and 635 million years ago.

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

A staff member of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences displays the animal fossil footprints, which were made in the Ediacaran Period, June 6, 2018. "They consist of two rows of imprints arranged in poorly organized series or repeated groups", the researchers wrote in their paper.

According to the researchers, this is the first evidence that bilaterian animals existed before the "Cambrian Explosion". They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.

"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", Virginia Tech University geobiologist and lead study author Shuhai Xiao told the Guardian.

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

As Xiao explains, knowing when the first legged animal appeared on Earth is a crucial detail, considering that the movement of sediments triggered by that first walking creature as it trotted over our planet's surface could have had a major impact on the Earth's geochemical cycles and climate.

The trackways are the earliest discovered indication of when animals evolved appendages.

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. This means that the mystery animal might have periodically dug into the ocean floor's sediments and microbial matts, possibly to mine for oxygen and food, the researchers said.

'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.

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