The Earliest Animal Fossil Footprint Record

The oldest known footprints on Earth, left by an ancient creepy-crawly more than 500 million years ago, have been discovered in China.

They are often assumed to have appeared and radiated suddenly during the so-called "Cambrian Explosion" about 541 to 510 million years ago, but scientists now tend to consider that their evolutionary ancestry was rooted in the Ediacaran Period.

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.

Scientists discovered the oldest footprint known so far in an ancient seafloor in China.

This means that the symmetrical creature appeared before the Cambrian Period, Chen noted.

Mystery surrounds the one-millimetre long creatures that made the prints, since no trace of their bodies has been found.

However, this creature - which provides the earliest evidence of an animal with legs - would have existed around 10 million years before then. These footprints are found in Yangtze Gorges in the southern region of China.

"Animals use their appendages to move around, to build their homes, to fight, to feed, and sometimes to help mate", one of the researchers, geobiologist Shuhai Xiao from Virginia Tech University, told The Guardian.

The footprints were left by a very early bilaterian, a type of animal with bilateral symmetry (usually characterized by a head at the front, legs on either side, and a back portion at its rear).

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

"At least three living groups of animals have paired appendages (represented by arthropods, such as bumblebees; annelids, such as bristle worms; and tetrapods, such as humans)", Zhe Chen, coauthor of the study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tells AFP as reported by BBC News.

"Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities". No fossils has been found in the fossil record, and the odds are it never will be found - it was a stroke of luck that the tracks were even preserved.

"Although the exact identity of the trace maker of the Shibantan trackways is hard to determine in the absence of body remains at the end of the trackways, we suggest that the trace maker was probably a bilaterian animal with paired appendages", the authors reported.

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