World's Oldest Footprints Discovered on Ancient Seafloor

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

"The newly found pieces are the oldest existing animal footprint fossils to date", said Chen Zhe, one of the Chinese researchers, before adding that they think the animal is similar to the modern-day shrimp. Bilaterians are a group of animals that have paired appendages - in this case, paired legs.

For comparison, non-bilateral animals include sponges, corals, jellyfish, and anemones.

An worldwide 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", said Xiao, "it is hard to say who made the footprints".

What the team actually reported to have discovered were fossil footprints for animal appendages.

Still, this discovery means that paleontologists will have to revise their vision of how life developed in Earth's primordial oceans.

The footprints date from a period called the Ediacara - which spans from the end of the Cryogenian Period 635 million years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian Period 541 Mya.

Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University examined trackways and burrows in sediment dating back to the Ediacaran Period.

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It is unclear just what kind of tiny creature left the tracks, which lie just a few millimeters apart and look like a two rows of shallow depressions, or holes, marked in the dark gray limestone.

Animals with bilaterally paired appengages are assumed to have appeared during the Cambrian Explosion, but now their ancestry may be traceable to even further back in history.

"Ediacaran trace fossils provide key paleontological evidence for the evolution of early animals and their behaviors", researchers write in their study. They are one of the most diverse animal groups in existence today.

'Arthropods and annelids, or their ancestors, are possibilities. "Late Ediacaran trackways produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages".

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.

"This style of preservation is distinct from other types of trace fossils, for example, tunnels or burrows, or body fossils".

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